Music Geek: Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” combine for engaging musical perspective

That famed, prolific director Woody Allen — the auteur behind greats like Annie HallInteriors, and, of course, the subject at hand, 1979’s Manhattan, the three of which were released over a three-year period from 1977 to 1979 — has always displayed a penchant for musical ingenuity.

So when the black-and-white, self-affirming Manhattan opens with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a musical masterpiece said by some to be a portrait or tribute to New York City, we aren’t really surprised. When Allen, with his wry wit and self-deprecating demeanor, juxtapositions his opening narration, a stop-start, neurotic monologue serving as the opening to the equally neurotic Isaac Davis, even obliquely mentioning Gershwin, we’re given a distinct image of the film to come.

Given Woody Allen’s filmmaking chronology, Manhattan was created in a perhaps reactionary way to his tense, uncomfortable 1978 drama Interiors, which is as intelligent as it is painful. Interiors featured a sole musical scene: a post-wedding dance set to jazz; it is a scene that serves primarily as a precursor to intensifying drama, and it doesn’t function as any actual relief it might, in a very surface reading, seem to be.

It is interesting, then, that Manhattan is so intensely musical. “Rhapsody in Blue” sets a brilliant, invigorating tone, and Woody Allen’s simultaneously emotional and light-hearted follow-up to Interiors lifts much of the tension acquired from tense drama.

Isaac Davis, portrayed by Allen himself, is emotionally unstable, obsessive, bombastic — the archetypal Woody Allen role. It is through this lens we see that Gershwin’s piece isn’t chosen simply for the Manhattan cityscape; it represents something more involved with Isaac: As equally stop-start as his narration, Isaac is specific, pointed, and emotional.

Where the introductory clarinet “Rhapsody in Blue” bursts triumphantly, Woody Allen — no stranger to the clarinet himself — the film bursts in time. The emotional highs come fast and furious, but when the calm comes — it inevitably does — we’re lulled into a sense of ease, and we soon find it’s probably a bit misplaced.

More than just metaphor for the film, though, Woody Allen uses Gershwin’s piece to illustrate something more profound. Allen’s use of “Rhapsody in Blue” starts and end bombastically, but in markedly different ways. It begins with real flare, that clarinet trill an echo for Isaac Davis and his love for New York City, but when the film comes to a close, an ethereal quiescence flits romantically into the picture.

No, “Rhapsody in Blue” is used as metaphor for life, existence, romance, social relations: Sometimes slow and brooding, others exciting with frenetic pace, Woody Allen uses George Gershwin to create something relatable and universalizable and internalizable. Specifically, the specifics of the film may not be absolutely communicable to every person; not all 50-year-old males end up dating high school students, but there’s something deeper that makes Manhattan a success.

When we start Manhattan, there’s a waxing confidence about life, but as we continue, it fluctuates boldly. The thematic elements remain much the same from beginning and the end, but the film ranges from harried and nerve-wracking to glorious and, well, fun.

Isaac Davis’s final conversation of the film, uncomfortable and nervous as it may be, is as genuine and heartfelt as anything Woody Allen has produced. As the conversation comes to a close, and the final strains of “Rhapsody in Blue” tug at the heartstrings, there’s nothing more to be said, and the film ends. In a way, Manhattan ends as it started, much as “Rhapsody in Blue.”

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