Sweet and Lowdown ***1/2
Written and directed by Woody Allen. Photography, Zhao Fei. Editing, Alisa Lepselter. Music arranged and conducted by Dick Hyman. Production design , Santo Loquasto. Produced by Jean Doumanian. Cast: Sean Penn (Emmet Ray), Samantha Morton (Hattie), Uma Thurman (Blanche), Anthony LaPaglia (Al Torrio), Brian Markinson (Bill Shields), Gretchen Mol (Ellie), et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 95 minutes. PG-13. At the New Art Theater
Woody Allen can do no wrong? Wrong. But he's done right so many times that he is a beacon of filmmaking. As in "Sweet and Lowdown."
The picture relates and shows part of the life of Emmet Ray, a fabulous jazz guitar player of the early to mid- Thirties, But the man never existed. He is an invention, a construction, a fabulation, even though several aspects of him and his life have been gathered from a number of stories about real musicians.
Telling the audience about Emmet are interspersed talking heads of real people, supposedly all jazz specialists. Some are indeed connoisseurs: Woody Allen himself, Ben Duncan, Nat Hentoff, Douglas McGrath. Others are not.
It is not something new for Woody. This work is the kissin' cousin of "Zelig," and of fantasies in which jazz or pop music plays a major role: "Radio Days," " Bullets Over Broadway," etc. It is also variant of the structure of "Broadway Danny Rose" whose life-story was told in reminiscences by showbiz people.
The fictional Emmet Ray was, by his own accounting and those of others, the second best jazz guitar player in the world, after the legendary (and real) Django Reinhardt. Django was a gypsy, born in Belgium but a French star for all practical purposes. A childhood accident - a fire - had deprived him of three fingers in ome hand, yet his playing was stupendous. To this day, he is a deity, remembered by millions. His pieces are played by thousands (in Django style) in Reinhardt groups.
He was such a cult figure for Emmet that the latter fainted on the two occasions he was in the same place as the gypsy. (There's a wonderful twist on this late in the movie).
Emmet was all musician. Outside his performances he was not a model to follow. Indeed, "lowdown" fits him well. He was undependable and a pain for those who hired him to play. He always spent way above his means, and blithely even resorted to pimping to supplement his income. He was a kleptomaniac. He hustled people (as in a small-town amateur contest, shown in the movie). He drank a lot, did drugs .But he did have friends, including black musicians. He was totally oblivious of the color line.
His quirks included love of trains, train-yards, and going to city dumps to shoot rats with a pistol. He liked elegant suits and expensive cars. (Note the gorgeous $4,000 big Packard convertible, and enjoy the imaginative, Munchausen-like way he got the money for it!)
Above all, it is his obsession with Django that hovers around him from the first to the last scenes. But he was so good that his Django-mania becomes a wonderful reminder that true artists always want to surpass themselves. That one can be a scoundrel and an artist at the same time is a true-to-life leitmotif throughout the movie.
At some point, Emmet and his best pal are in Atlantic City for a gig. Girl-hunting on the boardwalk, they meet statuesque Ellie and her rather mousy friend, the laundress Hattie. Flipping a coin Emmet gets stuck with Hattie --who turns out to be mute and who will become his companion for a long stretch.
Her treatment in his hands is not exactly nice. Some people see in it a case of misogyny transferred from Woody to Emmet. I don't buy that. First because Woody's misogyny is no proven fact. Secondly because Emmet shows that everything about him is overshadowed, even preempted, by his love of music. What autobiographical sides of Woody's are obvious here are a passion for jazz and a passion for filmmaking.
Unlike so many Woody creatures, Emmet is the non-intellectual "par excellence." No metaphysics, no deep (or even shallow) thoughts. No developed language skills, no culture other than musicianship. Emmet is an instinctive being. So are almost all others, including Hattie. Including too the gunman Al Torrio who later in the film becomes the lover of Emmet's wife. No, not Hattie, but socialite Blanche who likes to slum, thinks she is a writer, and entraps (or does she?) Emmet.
The movie's great joys are three. The structure. The superb hot jazz music. And the fantastic performance by Sean Penn. He is economical, non-flamboyant, not even terribly much developed (but what would there be to develop?), yet three-dimensional and unforgettable in his intensity with and for the guitar. He wears a funny little mustache which must be a reference to Django's own. (Several of Reinhardt's personal traits, such as undependability, have been worked into Ray's character).
Among the earliest pieces we hear are some Django recordings (four star stuff) and a splendid Howard Alden rendition of "Speak to Me of Love" (Parlez-moi d'Amour), a gem of a song made into a classic by the French singer Lucienne Boyer. There's irony in the early use of this first piece --whether planned or just a lucky choice I do not know. In either case, it is a fitting overture to a tale in which no one speaks of love, except for voiceless Hattie who speaks it with her face.
The ratio of thirty-four pieces to the movie's 95 minutes is heartwarming, a pleasure for all, a major treat for connoisseurs, a feast for those who, like Woody Allen, are enamored of such oldies.
And how magnificently does Emmet Ray play his guitar! It goes without saying that it is not Sean Penn who makes the sounds. But he was coached to perfection by Dick Hyman and by virtuoso guitarist Howard Allen (whose playing we hear) so that his body language and his plucking fingers (shown in many closeups) look entirely genuine. What the movie does is to go back to the old-style special effects that fool you -- without computers or techno-tricks.
The acting by all is excellent, with top, Oscar-worthy honors going to Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. She is another throwback, to the actresses of silent days. Which movie star she will remind you of depends on your familiarity with old cinema. In a juicy tidbit (and in-joke) Hattie is "discovered" by a Hollywood studio and given a bit part as Norma Talmadge's sister. It does not pan out.
It is worth noticing that Allen's visual strategy (aided by a great Chinese cinematographer who is not yet 40) includes the sparse use of closeups, perhaps in order to avoid thrusting emotions at the public, and to let it decide through the framing of people within contexts of period surroundings, mood and music. This adds to the fact that Woody Allen has made a work in which sights, and especially sounds, ought to enchant mature and/or informed audiences. In more than one sense, the older the listener, the better.