April 26, 2003

So Sweet, not Lowdown

Sweet and Lowdown (1999, Woody Allen) Such a delightful movie, I sort of can’t believe I missed it in the theaters. I remember that both Sean Penn and Samantha Morton were up for Oscars but the Woodman hadn’t been so up to snuff on his recent pictures, that I think I’d avoided it during its release. But now with my renewed obsession for Morton (in the “could watch her read a phonebook for two hours” category) après Morvern Callar, I decided to go back to watch it. Wow. A sort of jazz afficianado’s reminiscience, Allen brackets the film with historians and himself waxing poetic on the merits and outrageous behaviors of Emmett Ray, the second best jazz guitarist in the ‘30s. A complete egomaniac with a paralyzing fear of Django Reinheart, the only other guitarist Emmett considered better than himself, Penn plays Emmett as a twitchy genius prone to irrational breakdowns but lyrical musicianship. Penn really is great, though I suppose its easy to forget this about him when he seems to drop of the face of the earth and insist upon being a director and whatnot. Unlike less confident actors dropped into an Allen period piece, he constructs a completely credible character out of Emmett, rather than relying on the cliché Allen-esque mannerisms for depth. Morton does not speak, as Emmett’s mute girlfriend Hattie and potentially his great love, but who needs her to, as her eyes can say it all? The soundtrack is a joy, as is par for the Allen obsessively and lovingly researched course, and tinkles along with just the right amount of familiarity (“All of Me”) and unusual gems (such as various Reinheart recordings). From scanning the musical credits, which conspicuously lack any performances by an actual Emmett Ray, the inkling dawned on me that the film is really about Allen’s thoughts on how an artist might be plagued by the thought that he always played in the shadows of a gypsy musician from Spain. Is the film an aging cinematic genius questioning his own contributions or just an excuse to spin a few good yarns?

Posted by karen at April 26, 2003 3:55 PM