Wild man blows

As the recent efforts of Woody Allen and Kevin Bacon show, playing at being a musician is an actor's most challenging role


Sarah Vowell
May 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

A few weeks ago, I was
standing in a Planet Hollywood
watching actor Kevin Bacon play the guitar. And besides the kind of
nausea that squirts into your throat when you realize you've got the sort of
job that sends you to Planet Hollywoods to watch Kevin Bacon rock out,
there was
another, more disquieting thought nagging at me. A nostalgia, really: I'm
getting sentimental for one-track minds, mostly because I'm not sure when it
was that hobbies took over pop life. Did hobbies take on a new importance
when "Star Trek" star Leonard Nimoy published his first poem? Was it the
first time we saw candidate Clinton put on those silly shades and hoot his sax
with Arsenio's band? Or was it when Michael Jordan announced he'd be throwing
over basketball for baseball? (We all know how that turned out.) And
how many of us today associate the name Madonna with yoga and vice versa? Call
it the hobbying of America.

All of which to say: Bacon, who is not that bad of an actor, is
exceedingly bad as a musician. So bad, in fact, I might be above making fun
of him -- and where's the fun in that? Film director and actor Woody Allen, on
the other hand, is not a bad clarinet player. He is something even worse:
He's a mediocre clarinet player. Which is why Barbara Kopple's new
documentary, "Wild Man Blues," is such a tedious movie-going experience. At
least there's an absurdist quirk
about the musical grandstanding of Kevin Bacon: He plays in a band called
the Bacon Brothers with his brother, whose name is Kevin Bacon's Brother. The
night I saw them, Rolling Stone was broadcasting live to the Internet to
"millions of people." And when Kevin Bacon walks out onstage to play songs
that even dreary Dave Matthews would be ashamed of, the girl next to me
screams, "Oh my God! It's him!" with such an exaggerated air of expectation
that I bet even Bacon thought it was a little uncalled for.

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Woody Allen, on the other hand, approaches the clarinet with a workmanlike
sense of purpose, claiming, "I've practiced every day of my life."
He has been in a Dixieland group at Michael's Pub in New York for years.
"Wild Man Blues" documents the band's European tour. It focuses on Allen
and his
wife -- which isn't as titillating as we'd like, though Allen jokingly
refers to her as "the notorious Soon-Yi Previn." Right away, there is
nothing at stake, sexually or musically. Allen is many things in this film
-- a big baby, self-absorbed, scared, boring and bored -- but dishonest is
not one of
them. He's upfront right away about his relationship to music: "It's just a
hobby of mine." Just a hobby. So he's in the clear. He admits it. What's
our excuse? If you think it's a little silly that audiences would pay cash
to watch Allen plod through perfectly fine, perfectly dull versions of
"Down by the Riverside," try watching them keep vigil over his hotels just
to catch a glimpse of him walking from the front door to his
car.

There is something morbid about watching a documentary about a man whose
movies most people don't see playing music no one listens to anymore
in a manner that's not very impressive, while traveling with a woman everyone
feels sorry for, staying in hotels that are so luxurious they're ludicrous,
being lavished with unfounded yet unconditional love and hating the great
cities of the Continent for the crime of not being New York. "Theoretically,
this should be fun for us," Allen says tellingly of the tour. Yes, and
theoretically,
this should be fun for us, the viewers, as well. Instead, it's an exercise in
perversion, not so much inspiring the question "Who cares?" -- because you can
see the who, the caring fan faces in every city Allen visits -- but rather the
question "Why care? Why care at all?"

When Allen plays the clarinet, you can actually hear the spit going
through the tube. Even in the best of circumstances, it's not the mightiest
of instruments. But in
Allen's mouth, it sounds punier still. He knows this; he even takes his
instrument to a factory in France to have it bored out. Not that it helps.
There is a moment when he is playing a solo on "The Old Rugged Cross" that is
so pitiful and so unintentionally comic that the audience starts laughing
-- and then Allen starts laughing, too, and the whole thing comes off about
as tasteful as a crucifixion joke at
Easter dinner.

Soon-Yi, surprisingly, is the film's moral center, standing between the gaga
Woody worshipers and Woody himself, whose whims and tantrums she handles
serenely. When she's shown a photo of her beloved, she cracks, "Nerd comes to
mind." And even though she's been sucked into the vortex of his weird world,
she frequently says what the viewer's thinking -- like reprimanding him to hep
up his stage presence a little by moving around. He replies, "I'm
appropriately animated for a human in the context in which I exist." Cut
to: A shot of Allen nodding off in a chair, which makes you think that even
the editor doesn't take him seriously.

"The crowd outside was hilarious," Soon-Yi tells Allen after one concert.
"It was like a rock concert. Except you're an older guy." While it's
reassuring to know she noticed, age has nothing to do with the curious forces
at work here. The 30-something Bacon, who has very good hair, is the
perfect age to be a rock star. Though that doesn't make the song he wrote for
his wife, "A Woman's Got a Mind to Change," any less embarrassing. The
problem with actors pretending to be musicians comes from the fact that music,
like baseball, is exceedingly difficult to fake.

Why is it that actors dabbling in music are doomed to fail, while musicians
turned actors tend to steal scenes? Why does Frank Sinatra, as the
scrappy Maggio, walk away with "From Here to Eternity"? What makes Will
Smith light up "Men in Black"? Why am I dying to see Polly Harvey play
Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley's new film? Is it because pop singers, to
become pop stars, need such a gigantic persona to come across onstage that
wide-screen enormity makes them just that much bigger? Or is it because the
best pop music is a shot at truth, while actors are too well-trained at
pretending?

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Film actually makes allowances for snippets of star power, for dabblers --
hobbyists, if you will. It's called a cameo, and it's for people like Al
D'Amato or Jann Wenner or even musicians such as Tom Petty or Elvis Costello
(seen in "The Devil's Advocate," "Jerry McGuire," "The Postman" and "Spice
World," respectively) to drop in and signify themselves and zip right out.
The power of the cameo is the shock of recognition. Music has no such
equivalent -- you're either making it or you're not.


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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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