(Text in greek)
Woody means Jazz.
"When I was little, when I woke up in the morning and went to the toilet, ate my breakfast and got ready to go to school, I used to turn on the radio –like every American - and they were all there: Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie ... I was not thinking whether it was art or not. It was good music and that was enough for me”.
All of us who call ourselves fans of Woody Allen, we have spent many years with the legend of the director who every Monday takes his clarinet and goes to the gunpowder smoked Michael 's Pub (now to the elegant Cafe Cartyle, of the homonymous flagship hotel) to play traditional jazz of New Orleans. The Woody Allen New Orleans Jazz Band is currently the most requested amateur band in the world. And luckily the director makes films in different parts of Europe, bringing with him his friends. This way they found themselves in 2005 in the Concert Hall. I went, of course as a fan, but half-heartedly, fearing that I would meet something equivalent with a “rebetiko” troupe with a Greek comedian as a front man. What I saw was a musician who served as a member of a large, matched and merry band, with a way of playing somewhat rough, crude (and therefore closest to the traditional sound of New Orleans), who when is warmed up he sends out a feeling that wins you over, and when he’s really warmed up, he does not hesitate even to sing, giving the audience a picture that has never seen in any of his films.
Born in December 1935, with all his childhood being “fed” by the sounds of the swing era, which was also a pop craziness, “immoral” for the 30s, similar to the explosion of rock and roll in the fifties or the Beatlemania of the sixties, Woody experienced Frank Sinatra being ”idolized” as a singer of the orchestra of Tommy Dorsey as Glenn Miller was making one hit after another. The trumpeter Harry James was the great star of the time-and a number of great black artists such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie defines the nature and character of jazz. Roughly one can understand, therefore, the musical background in which Woody grew up in Brooklyn- something that later determined the soundtrack of many great (or not) of his films. The relationship with jazz became much more close later, in 1950, when Woody heard the revival of traditional jazz (of New Orleans), he learned how to play the clarinet and made a second, “parallel” and passionate hobby career as a musician and as jazzman, which he continues to this day with persistence and faith.
The idol of Woody Allen –the one whose presence and status pushed him to learn music- was Sidney Bechet. Indeed Woody was not at all interested in the clarinet at the beginning. He wanted to learn soprano saxophone -an instrument easy to learn (but not easy in sound-music handling). So, having Bechet as a model (to an extent that he named his daughter Bechet Dumaine Allen), Woody became a soprano saxophonist. The switching to clarinet happened in a normal way (because the two instruments are similar to technique) and the man who inspired him –musically and stylistically- was now George Lewis.
Woody Allen, in time, became a great jazz musician, which means that he spent countless hours of studying and practicing. Alongside with his creative career in cinema, his jazz career thrived so far as to become proverbial! Being a jazz musician without performing acts and having a relevant live history is unthinkable -and Woody Allen has too many “flights” in his credit. As a musician, as a jazz clarinetist, Woody Allen is wonderful. Of course, all the purists (in every place and in every era) tend to compare based on some invisible “value systems”, regardless and dissimilar: nobody can say or claim that Woody has the level of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw! But he might (well and his style represents it) be better! An important (from many and varied facets) artist who has grown up with this music, who has studied it and has well learned it and also has - from a certain moment - decided to integrate it (in increasing amounts) in his basic art which is cinema...
Some argue that music in films is often used to manipulate the viewer, while sometimes it substitutes a lack of the director’s talent. It's like the director “steals” and tries within three minutes to cause the same effect as a two-hour movie, emotionally and mentally. So when you use a familiar song, you call the viewer to withdraw an emotion and implement it in a scene, which should theoretically be caused by the scene itself. In other words Bergman in Persona does not need music to create a masterpiece, while Tarantino made a music collage from old spaghetti westerns (or other cult Euro movies) to musically “dress” Kill Bill. The argument is understood, but it is not easy to agree with. It does not make much sense to think whether it is possible to separate “Once Upon a Time in the West” by the music of Morricone, “Dolce Vita” by the music of Rota, or “North by Northwest” by the music of Bernard Hermann, who also gave it all in “Taxi Driver” by Scorsese, who in his turn is the best DJ / director and competes with Tarantino in the game of choosing songs for specific scenes. And who can ever doubt the talent of the “DJ of motion sequences”, Woody Allen, who always chooses the best jazz song of the 30s for each scene of the film?
Not that there are no examples confirming Wood’s text in the philosophy of Woody Allen. For example, if you compare one of his best films, “Annie Hall”, with one of the weakest, “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”, you immediately have a proof of the theory. In “Annie Hall”, the music is almost non-existent, despite the fact that the actress Diane Keaton plays a singer, while in the “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”, the best scenes of the film are those where the “In a Persian Market” plays by the orchestra of Wilbur de Paris. The film is about a detective of an insurance company who doesn’t know that he hunts himself as a victim of hypnotism and he commits himself the robberies that he investigates. And while the film is completely flabby, the robbery scenes get beat by the sounds of the banjo that dominates the beginning of the track. On the other hand, would “Manhattan” be less of a masterpiece without the melodies of Gershwin and especially the Rhapsody in Blue;
In this film begins what is now for the fans of Woody Allen an “institution”: the use of war music in his films. In the preceded movies, music was not a material, although two or three things are worth noting. The first one is related to the first appearances of Woody as an actor and screenwriter in “Casino Royal” and in “What's new pussycat?” Two films with the signature of Burt Bacharah in the soundtrack; in the first one we indeed owe the masterpiece “The look of love”.
As far as for the first movie signed by Woody Allen as a director, the cult masterpiece “What's up tiger Lilly?” this is nothing but a farce. Allen did not shoot a single scene as a director. He simply took the Japanese spy adventure “Kagi No Kagi”, he remounted it, he dubbed it with incoherent dialogues, he put some intercalary scenes with Lonin 'Spoonful playing their songs and he gave us a surreal movie.
Generally, in his first films, Allen was experimenting with cinema as a means and he used the music accordingly. In “Bananas” the end credits song is the wonderful “Quiero La Noche”, written by his collaborator Marvin Hamlisch. In “Love and Death” evolving in Tsarist Russia, Russian classical composers are played. Finally jazz finds a place in the “The Sleeper” which is a paradox: a film that is being developed in the future, but the music is traditional jazz of New Orleans, by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This inconsistency of image and sound plays a very important role in this comedy even if it is an element that is usually overlooked by critics.
The other paradox is that Woody Allen, as known, plays the clarinet himself in a band specializing in Jazz of New Orleans but this specific genre is absent from his movies. Perhaps because his films are “urban”, while this specific sound is more “provincial”. Benny Goodman, Art Tatum and Django fit more with the streets of his beloved Manhattan. It is no coincidence that as many times as he leaves the city, the music changes. The “Shadows and Fog” was a simultaneous homage to German expressionism and the theater of Brecht, so reasonably the soundtracks were compositions of Kurt Weill while the film “Match point”, which critics have described as his most important one in the recent years, is a social drama taking place in London so Jazz gives the way to the opera by Verdi. And also do not forget that in the delightful “Mighty Aphrodite” not only is there an ancient tragedy chorus commenting on the events, but the credits soundtrack is “Taksimi” by Vassilis Tsitsanis from the “Minore of Dawn” and in another scene the dance of “Sakena” of Xarhakos, with the bouzouki of Zampetas. In the same film, when the protagonist is looking for a name for the child he adopts, he seriously considers the possibility to name him Django.
As you can see (or not) my friends, Woody Allen is not random. And one thing is certain. For any of his films up to date we talk about, his music always comes out fine and eclectic providing additional enjoyment. So if you are about to watch again (or for the first time) one of his films, we wish you: Enjoy listening – apart from watching...