(Woody’) talent as a scorer of movies is widely overlooked, or is so taken for granted that it passes unremarked upon. Music is such an integral part of Woody’s presentation of film, and his use of tunes from 1900 to 1950 so pronounced, that its possible to recognise a Woody Allen film from the score alone.
Eric Lax, Woody Allen. A biography.
It’s the best life I can think of if you are a really talented musician because communication in music is so emotional in every way.
Woody Allen, quoted in TIME, Oct 23rd 1989
Happy Birthday Woody. He’s 78 today and there is no better tribute than to celebrate his music.
He often says in interviews that his dream occupation would be to be a musician. He is very humble about his own clarinet playing, saying that he is merely a hobbyist and lacks the talent and style of the musicians he admires such as Sidney Bechert.
I cannot listen to Rhapsody in Blue without those monochrome images of MANHATTAN appearing in my minds-eye. He has a keen ear for the appropriate music to match a scene and some cases, the music becomes a character in the film, not only complementing the imagery, but subsuming it to elevate the film sequence to something magical.
Early in his career, he used scores composed by Marvin Hamlish (who sounds like a character from one of his New Yorker pieces), but he soon realised that he preferred the effect of putting a record behind the scenes. He says, “my records are over there, I just pick from the world’s great music and melodies and choose whatever I want.”
Although I’m no fan of New Orleans jazz, I must admit that I’ve enjoyed listening to the soundtrack of WILD MAN BLUES. There is always something infectious about listening to bands who are clearly enjoying themselves. For someone who has self-diagnosed anhedonia, it’s a paradox to see Woody delighting in early jazz music. A paradox and a joy.
SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)
Based on his play DEATH (published in 1975) this is an experiment in German Expressionism. Woody plays Kleinman who is woken in the middle of the night to join a vigilante group to search for a serial killer. Back-lighting and an overactive smoke machine creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in the style of F.W. Murnau or Fitz Lang.
Silence is used to brilliant effect. The music is made up of recordings by Kurt Weill. The use of Alabama Song from The Three Penny Opera is particularly chilling in this context.
EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996)
Goldie Hawn does some great wire work as she gracefully dances with Woody on the banks of the Seine. He always wanted to make a musical and, so far, this is his only attempt at the genre.
I enjoyed this musical much more the second time. I was unconvinced by his injection joie de vivre into his usual mix of failing relationships, when I saw this on its release. However, I think it probably deserved more attention as there is a definite charm in seeing the likes of Drew Barrymore, Ed Norton and Alan Alda ‘singing’ songs from the Great American Songbook. It was way ahead of its time, preempting the karaoke, juke-box musicals that have dominated Broadway and the West End in recent years. MAMA MIA (2008) has made this look better!
It deserves credit for being ahead of the curve and for some inventive dance sequences.
WILD MAN BLUES (Kopple, 1997)
In 1996, Woody took his usual Monday night gig at Michael’s Pub on tour across the major cities of Europe. A documentary crew were on hand to capture the intimate moments between performances. In hindsight it seems to be a rehabilitation after the damage inflicted to his brand following the Mia Farrow split. Soon-yi is the dominate character in this documentary film. She is constantly coaching Woody on how to manage his emotional intelligence. Early in the tour she reminds him that he needs to thank the whole band and not just his long term friend Eddy Davies (the banjo player).
There’s a sense that Woody is completely overwhelmed by the adoring crowds that meet him in each city. He seems delighted in the sheer pleasure of playing the raw New Orleans jazz, but less happy negotiating the pressures of celebrity where he needs to fight off the paps and the silly questions of ill-informed journalists.
Dare I say that this is probably more revealing documentary than the Weide one from last year as it is stubbornly focused on his clarinet playing, yet brings out interesting aspects of Allen as a film-maker and celebrity. He reveals that Soon-yi has not seen many of his films as she has no interest in them, except when she needed to for college. He suggests ANNIE HALL as a starting point.
The soundtrack is well-worth putting on your Spotify playlist too.
SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)
The treatment for this film was first presented to Warners in the early 1970s. They rejected ‘JAZZ BABY’ as they wanted a comedy. The screenplay was moth-balled while he worked on BANANAS (1971) and didn’t emerge until the middle of the nineties.
The film features ‘mockumentary’ with talking heads (including Woody, playing himself, whatever that means) discussing the life an work of Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz-guitarist, interspersed with flashbacks featuring Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. Penn is excellent at playing the flawed character of Ray, who is a terrible boor, untrustworthy, and involved in unsavoury behaviour, but has a phenomenal talent at playing the guitar. Morton is a mute who is captivated by his playing.
This is one that would appear in my top 10.
A PORTRAIT OF PHILIP IN TWELVE PARTS (Hicks, 2007)
A penetrating documentary exploring the tragic life of Phillip Glass divided into 12 sequences that represent his eclectic interests and avenues of his career to date. There is a segment about his soundtracks and the contribution that he made to KOYAANISQATSIC (1982) and most notably KUNDUN (1997).
Woody makes a brief appearance giving Glass direction in the editing suite for CASSANDRA’S DREAM. Its an awkward moment as Woody sends him away to improve the work he has done on the score. Its clear why Woody likes to use recorded material, as it cuts out the artistic conflict with the composer! Not even Glass could rescue CASSANDRA’S DREAM.
I am nothing if not a completist.