SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)

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3-5 star| Dir: Woody Allen

“Any woman would be second to his music. He wouldn’t miss me any more than the woman he abruptly left. He could only feel pain for his music. “

Following his successful foray into filmmaking with Take the Money and Run, a farcical audience pleasing mockumentary which showed Allen as a more than capable filmmaker, his desire to invest in serious work first emerged. In 1970 he pitched United Artists a script titled The Jazz Baby; a 1930s drama about an ethereal jazz guitarist. While Woody had full authority to pursue whatever creative outlet he wanted in his films – a freedom has has maintained and enjoyed his entire directorial career – the studio had understandable qualms about a man famous for his comedy pursuing such dramatic and esoteric work this early in his vocation. Allen empathised and gave us the rollicking Bananas instead. It would take 29 years for Allen to have the inclination to revisit and rework this early draft, even while dabbling with more serious work in Interiors, September and Another Woman.

Working with new editor Alisa Lepselter (who is still with him to this day 18 years later), Sweet and Lowdown (named after the George Gershwin song, which ironically doesn’t feature in this fabulous soundtrack) keeps the same narrative structure as The Jazz Baby – a well-rooted period mockumentary (clearly an early theme for Allen) using dramatisations stemming from anecdotal, fabricated and oddly-selected talking-head interviews (Douglas McGrath and Allen himself are the best people to inform this story of jazz guitar virtuoso, Emmet Ray, second only to his idol Django Reinhardt?). Allen’s proximity to this fictional story mirrors his own Allen’ modesty in feeling like he can never match the icons of cinema which he idolises himself – Fellini (La Strada acts as inpsiration here), Bergman, the Marx Brothers, Keaton and so on.

In its modification, Woody added some “spirit” and lightened the tone to bring more humour to the piece. This helped change Emmet from a purely a masochistic monster so that his descent becomes a less sad and bleak one. Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage were considered for role but final choice Sean Penn is superb as the “self-centered, egotistical, highly neurotic, genius guitar player”, as Allen describes his creation; a deeply flawed, deeply self-destructive, deeply selfish, deeply troubled, deeply fearful, deeply narcissistic and deeply talented musical maestro. He loves the music but loves living the life of a musician more, to the shameful neglect of his mute partner Hattie (Samantha Morton).

There’s no shortage of heralded performances in Allen’s filmography, yet Sweet and Lowdown boats the strongest pair of performances in Allen’s work since Crimes and Misdemeanors a decade earlier. Both Penn and Morton were nominated for Oscars and they really are quite magical together. Morton appears right out of the silent movie era, leaving an incredibly touching and stunning impression. Allen instructed her to study the performances of Harpo Max, of whom she had never heard of before, which catalysed one of the most impressive and unforeseen performances in Allen’s work. Some of the comic sequences even play into the silent movie realm in their construction and execution, particularly Emmet’s set fiasco with the crescent moon entrance.

There’s a lot of fun to be had on the ride, with Penn’s criminal shenanigans and debauchery being played as sublimely as the music of Emmet Ray. Yet the films two best scenes happen towards its conclusion, bringing a welcome and bittersweet poignancy to the generally insufferable Ray.  After leaving Hattie for socialite Blanche Williams (Uma Thurman), he’s humbled in his naive and conceited expectations of being reunited with his former love with open and fawning arms. His discovery that she’s moved on, as if everyone centers their world around him as much as he does for himself, leads to Ray’s greatest work being produced by allowing all his regret, angst and sorrow into his playing.

This art vs. artist theme has taken an acidic turn in this 1990s period with Allen depicting toxic, parasitic and problematic artists. Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity are among the others which plays off Allen’s own conflict of balancing artistic dreams and a satisfying personal life during a time of public scrutiny, which has not lost its fervor in today’s climate. Tom Shone in Woody Allen: A Retrospective summarised this brilliantly: “balancing his tone between admiration for the art and disappointment in the artist suggesting a candor only made possible by dramatic proxies.”

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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