“Low Down” is one from the heart. It’s a melancholy, evocative, beautifully made memory piece, unblinking and unromanticized, a lovely film that brings great emotion and a dead-on feeling for time, place and recaptured mood to a story that is as universal as it is personal.
Starring the letter-perfect duo of John Hawkes and Elle Fanning, “Low Down” is based on Amy-Jo Albany’s finely written memoir of growing up with her father, legendary jazz pianist Joe Albany, a heroin addict living in the on-the-skids Hollywood of the 1970s.
Co-written by Albany and Topper Lilien, this atmospheric film is directed by Jeff Preiss with a real love for the period and its long-gone ethos of impoverished hipster artists passionate about creating and appreciating jazz.
Preiss, the cinematographer on Bruce Weber’s “Let’s Get Lost,” is not only at home in the ‘70s but he’s made a film that — in its sensitivity, purity of vision and decision to have director of photography Christopher Blauvelt shoot in anamorphic 16 mm — is something of a throwback to the independent ethos of that time as well.
Very contemporary, however, is the impeccable naturalness of Hawkes and Fanning, performers incapable of setting a foot wrong. Though other actors are impressive, especially Glenn Close as Gram, Amy-Jo’s grandmother and Albany’s iron-willed mother, musician Flea as his close friend Lester Hobbs and Lena Headley as his toxic ex-wife, Sheila, it is the convincing bond between Hawkes and Fanning that sustains this story from its opening in 1974 to its conclusion two years later.
Setting the scene for what is to come is the film’s graceful opening sequence. We see a jazz record on the turntable and then watch Fanning’s Amy-Jo in the apartment she shares with her father as she tells us, in the poised voice-over of the memoir, everything we need to know about her relationship with her dad, starting with he was a great jazz pianist who played with people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker.
“I often thought my father was born of music, some wayward melody that took the form of a man,” she says. “I was in awe of his talents, I loved him out of all proportion, as only a daughter can.”
While we’re hearing this, Amy-Jo is looking out of their apartment window, where within the space of a few seconds we see both the joy that characterized their bond and the real-world, addiction-related complications that continually made it difficult.
Though she is playing younger than her age, Fanning nails this part. She is earnest and yearning as young teenager Amy-Jo, wonderfully proud of her father but somehow made melancholy, as she’d have to be, by the hardscrabble circumstances of her life.
Hawkes, who is all about low-key intensity, is equally strong as the rail-thin Albany, cigarette eternally dangling from his lips, a sweet man whose brilliance as a pianist goes hand in hand with an unapologetic addiction he can never completely escape.
Though it is Albany’s superb work we hear on melodies like Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and his own “AB Blues,” it is Hawkes we see playing, and the extended period of time the actor put in ensuring that his work would look completely realistic pays off nicely.
As much a character as anyone flesh and blood is the pre-urban renewal Hollywood of the 1970s, typified by the seedy, single-room occupancy hotel where Albany and his daughter stay for a time. Residents include other addicts and hookers as well as unclassifiable people like the artistic Alain (a fine Peter Dinklage), all of whom play their part in Amy-Jo’s far-from-conventional coming of age.
“Low Down” is intentionally episodic, providing slices of Amy-Jo’s life with her dad and, when he is away, her Gram. What holds us is the drama of this young girl confronting this hard life, trying to keep her balance and deal with its challenges. But even at Amy-Jo’s worst moments, the love she shares with her dad is as strong as the pain, and that is a remarkable thing to experience.
MPAA rating: R for drug use, language and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In limited release