A version of this article appeared in The Age, May 31, 2012.
Popular wisdom holds that all comics long to be musicians. In Woody Allen's case, we know it's true: he may have directed more than forty movies, but he's told plenty of interviewers over the years that jazz is his greatest passion. Famously, he's never let anything, even the Academy Awards, get in the way of his Monday night gig playing clarinet as part of an ensemble. By his own account it's a comfort thing, a relief from the anxieties about sex, death and the absence of God that spark most of his jokes. If Woody were Californian, maybe he'd meditate or go surfing – but he's an old-school New Yorker, so for him it's jazz. “There's nothing between you and the pure feeling of what you're playing,” he explains in the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues. “There's no cerebral element to it at all.”
It makes sense that a new documentary on Allen should screen as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, along with two of his best films from the 1990s. But what does jazz really mean for him – in particular, the kind of ultra-traditional Dixieland jazz that was archaic even in his youth? There's inarguably a gap between Allen and his cultural heroes; notoriously, his movie universe is one where African-Americans play little or no visible role. Still, something in his temperament responds to the brisk vitality of this music, permitting improvisation within firm bounds. Just as jazz has its “standards”, Allen's scripts are typically riffs on cultural commonplaces, the way that his recent hit Midnight in Paris takes our received ideas of Picasso or Hemingway and subjects them to respectful teasing. A jazz influence can be felt, too, in the handling of language which has always been Allen's greatest strength: his comic monologues have their own variety of music, where the patented stammerings and stumblings define the syncopated rhythm.
At his best, Allen can take even the most familiar jazz-influenced compositions and make them his own. No Allen fan can hear the clarinet glissando that opens “Rhapsody In Blue” without remembering the shots of the New York skyline at the start of Manhattan (1979). The impact here springs from the three-way tension between music, image, and Allen's stop-start voiceover narration, supposedly a series of discarded beginnings to a novel. “For him, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.” Instantly, a space opens up between the film's apparent subject-matter – a very 1970s comedy of shifting, regretful relationships – and a much older dream of the excitement of the city.
So many of Allen's films play on that gap between banal everyday life and the realm of the imagination: the fantasy version of the 1920s in Midnight In Paris, the glamour conjured up by the movies in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) or over the wireless in Radio Days (1987). Yet few of his characters manage to break through permanently to the promised land which music seems to inhabit. Tellingly, his single attempt at a full-scale musical, Everyone Says I Love You (1997), is a near-total failure – though it does contain the uniquely touching scene where Allen himself sings “I'm Through With Love” in a thin, quavering voice, staring at the floor as if he feared revealing some intimate secret.
A comparable, still more memorable scene occurs at the end of Sweet and Lowdown (1999), presented as a biography of the imaginary 1930s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a crude but gifted fellow plainly conceived by Allen as a displaced self-portrait. After a lifetime of selfishness, Emmet realises that he's lost his one true love (Samantha Morton). To console himself, he picks up his guitar and once more begins to play. Smirking dreamily and waving his head like an orchestra conductor, Penn in close-up conveys an extraordinary range of nearly intangible feelings – innocent bliss, a vulgar delight in mastery, rueful amusement at his unwilling depth of emotion.
“Can we go now?” screeches Emmett's latest girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), the moment the piece is done. The comic pathos stems not only from her philistine attitude – we know there's no way this couple can last – but from our sense that no-one will ever hear quite what Emmet does, in this particular music.