Friday December 10, 1999
In "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen has found a droll and amusing way to combine his two favorite subjects: jazz music and himself, not necessarily in that order.
While he often protests that he's thinking nothing of the kind, it's inevitable that films like "Husbands and Wives" and "Deconstructing Harry" come to be viewed within the context of Allen's own life, and their protagonists end up doing double duty as variant versions of himself.
With "Sweet and Lowdown," Allen adds some new mock documentary changes to this scenario, for the film's subject, though invented, is treated as if he were real. Facing the camera in classic talking-head mode, genuine authorities like Allen, jazz critic Nat Hentoff and writer-director Douglas McGrath set the scene by describing the made-up antics of 1930s virtuoso Emmet Ray, the second-greatest jazz guitarist of his day.
Sean Penn, the latest and best Allen surrogate (John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh and others have had the job), plays Ray as a man described as "vain, egotistical, with genuine crudeness," a gifted creative artist who is less than zero as a human being. So part of the pleasure of watching "Sweet and Lowdown" is the gradual realization that Allen is having fun riffing on the less flattering public perceptions of his own Soon-Yi-era persona.
The other pleasure of "Sweet and Lowdown" is Penn's performance. Though many of his films have been grim and grimmer, his spaced-out Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" remains memorable, and he brings an essential energy and a nice deadpan comic sensibility to his portrait of the great and greatly flawed guitarist.
Preening, cocky and ridiculous, with a wavy pompadour overshadowing a thin mustache, Emmet Ray is a hapless dolt, a man whose idea of a compliment is "very good everybody, particularly me." Penn, who learned the fingering for Ray's complex solos (Howard Alden does the actual playing), has had no trouble finding the character here, even coming up with a funny kind of peacock walk, part prissy, part robotic, for the gifted gentleman.
Yes, Ray is a kleptomaniac (he once stole an alarm clock from Hoagy Carmichael) whose thuddingly dull hobbies include trainspotting and shooting rats at city dumps with a cannon-like .45. Yes, he's a vacant soul who, when asked what goes through his mind when he's playing, replies, "that I'm underpaid." But he does play ravishingly. That makes up for everything, doesn't it? Or does it?
Ray himself certainly thinks it does. "I can't have my life cluttered," he says at one point. "I'm an artist. A truly great artist. I need to be free." The film, however, as it takes us through the musician's various inane misadventures, leaves it an intriguingly open question.
Most of "Sweet and Lowdown's" time is taken up with Ray's various romances, particularly one with a laundress named Hattie he encounters on his day off, only to be chagrined to find that she's mute. "This is my one day off," he characteristically whines. "I want a talking girl."
But as played by the wonderfully expressive British actress Samantha Morton, Hattie is able to say more with looks than most people can with words. Pulling great long faces when things go wrong, as they often do, Morton's Hattie is a very sweet virtuoso performance that can stand comparison to the classic playful ingenues of the silent screen.
Aside from his various romances (Uma Thurman is particularly engaging as a would-be writer fascinated by extreme characters), Ray's most consistent relationship, and the film's most engaging running gag, involves the real-life jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Born into a troop of Gypsies and raised in France, Reinhardt was perhaps Europe's first jazz star and the acknowledged (even by Ray) top guitarist of his day. "Mostly I'm untouchable," Ray is wont to say of his talent, "except there's a Gypsy in France." Ray saw Reinhardt live only once, with disastrous results, and his obsession with his rival plays out in very funny ways.
Though "Sweet and Lowdown" feels like minor Woody Allen, the filmmaker's passion for jazz gives the film a kind of lilting confidence that serves it well. It's a loving and comic tribute to a musical era Allen knows well, and when characters say pointed things like, "No genius is worth too much heartache," and "such is the ego of genius, I must get used to it," wondering who the joke is really on is an added bonus.
Sweet and Lowdown, 1999. PG-13, for sexual content and some substance abuse. Sweetland Films presents a Jean Doumanian production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Woody Allen. Producer Jean Doumanian. Executive producer J.E. Beaucaire. Screenplay Woody Allen. Cinematographer Zhao Fei. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Costumes Laura Cunningham Bauer. Music arranged and conducted by Dick Hyman. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Jessica Lanier. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Sean Penn as Emmet Ray. Samantha Morton as Hattie. Uma Thurman as Blanche. Anthony LaPaglia as Al Torrio. Gretchen Moll as Ellie. Brian Markson as Bill Shields.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times