After the meh-ness of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the next entry in Woody Allen’s filmography comes as a complete shock. Zelig is a movie of brilliance and substance. It balances dazzling cinematic skill with thematic material that is thought-provoking, entertaining and relevant.
Zelig is presented as a documentary that looks back at the singular character and 1920s social phenomenon of a man called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) who was able to transform himself to fit in with any group of people, of any profession, class or race. The one psychiatrist who believes Zelig can be cured, Euroda Fletcher (Mia Farrow), falls in love her patient. After he escapes from a kind of freakshow existence and eventually becomes enmeshed in the Nazi high command, it is his love for Dr Fletcher that brings him to his senses. The pair escape back to the US and Leonard Zelig is cured.
While very funny throughout, the film resonates because it works on so many levels – the personal (Zelig’s overwhelming desire to fit in), the interpersonal (his relationship with Eurdora Fletcher) and also the political. Woody has commented in interviews that as he was thinking of the plot of this remarkable character, it occurred to him that when people give up their individuality to become part of the crowd, the result will inevitably give rise to fascism.
As well as exploring this interesting theme – and the theme of celebrity in the Jazz Age – Zelig also impresses as a pitch-perfect satire of documentaries. All the elements are here, from the stock footage and cheap background music to the super-serious narrator and modern-day intellectuals who offer their interpretation. The optical effects are very well done, and the integration of old and new footage is seamless; a credit to DOP Gordon Willis who apparently used authentic lenses and lighting from the period.
However I think my favourite creative achievement in this film is the use of music, particularly the pastiche songs written by Dick Hyman. He is a renowned jazz pianist who can play in just about any style, and the songs he created for Zelig have just the right blend of authenticity and comedy, such as ‘You May Be Six People But I Love You’. Hyman clearly shares a love of the standards and jazz that Woody Allen holds dear, and he would go on to arrange and score a lot more music for the filmmaker in the future.
I was introduced to this film in my first year of university by my lecturer in Modern Jewish History. He was a fan of the film, and used the symbolism of Zelig’s experience as a metaphor for Jewish assimilation in the US – a point made in the film by one of the contemporary commentators. I remember being completely enamoured of the film when I first saw it and watching it a number of times. When Forrest Gump came out the following year, also a film that interpolated contemporary actors in period footage (but with digital trickery), it seemed to pale in comparison.
I know I’m not alone in my admiration for this film. Watching it again this week, it still strikes me as a career highlight. Though it was a critical hit, I’m not sure that Zelig is so widely loved today, or even known, as one of Woody’s best films. It deserves to be seen more.
Next week: Broadway Danny Rose