Sweet and Lowdown


Music to her ears: Hattie (Morton) is mesmerised by the artistry of Emmet's (Penn) guitar playing...
dir-scr Woody Allen
with Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol, John Waters, James Urbaniak, Vincent Gustaferro, Brian Markinson, Molly Price, Douglas McGrath, Woody Allen
Columbia 99/US 4 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
Let's face it: Woody Allen is a genius. No one can create film characters and mythologies like him, entertaining and challenging us with ideas, themes and wickedly insightful humour as he spins a web of fiction that seems so real it takes our breath away. Sweet and Lowdown is a minor masterpiece; every scene is utterly wonderful.

It's the 1930s, and the central figure is jazz musician Emmet Ray (Penn), the second best guitarist in the world who quakes at the thought of his idol, Django Reinhardt. Emmet hasn't a clue where his talent comes from; it's just there, and he only feels alive when he plays. But he doesn't want to sell himself, so he lives in virtual poverty and struggles to find work because of his drinking and womanising. Then two women throw off his equilibrium--a mute laundry girl (Morton) and a high society writer (Thurman).

As the story spins out, the remarkable script gets under Emmet's skin marvellously, cleverly examining the nature of art and relationships in an off-handed way that frequently makes us laugh out loud and also brings a lump to the throat. This is due to Allen's astute direction as well as a skilled cast anchored by Penn's perfectly measured performance. He adds layers of interest to a role that years ago would have been played by Allen himself. (Allen does appear here, along with other jazz aficionados, in interspersed mock-doc interviews.) Morton shines as well in a complex, major role that has no dialog whatsoever, even though she speaks volumes. And even if the film seems to peter out a bit, it's still deeply satisfying and profoundly perceptive, balancing humour and irony with a much more serious storyline about struggling jazz musicians and the mysteries of artistic creation. Terrific stuff.

[PG--adult themes] 15.May.00
US release 10.Dec.00; UK release 9.Jun.00

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When I was 17, I began reading books about obscure jazz musicians like Keith 'Red' Mitchell or Oran 'Hot Lips' Page. These were men that mainstream culture had never embraced. Recordings of them were difficult to find. Then this evening I saw Sweet and Lowdown. It's yet another obsessive Woody Allen film, this one on his favorite subject: jazz. Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, a narcissistic forgotten guitarist along the vein of his idol Django Reinhardt (whose hot jazz work I have always admired). The film is a comedy of sorts recounting the larger than life story of Emmet, a man whose idea of a good time is to take women down to the dumpster to shoot rats with his gun or to sit by the train tracks to watch the trains pass by. Emmet, a literal trainspotter a good half century before Irvine Welsh came into the scene, turns out to be quite a character, fancying himself as an 'artiste' whose work seems always to get tangled up with his never-ending lady problems. Narrated with different jazz journalists and Allen himself recounting tales in a pseudo-documentary style, contrasting biographies of Emmet Ray, this film seems directly inspired by all those jazz stories of bit players I read some time ago. The live scenes never cease to be amusing and although it's altogether too short, nevertheless it's an interesting 90 minutes of film-going with a wonderful score. Check it out." --Carly, Los Angeles.

"This is a good type of Woody Allen film ... not much evidence of Woody whining all over the place. It's just got a fabulous musical score, and really unusual plot and premise, and some really good acting. I have never seen Penn on such good form - his Emmet Ray is a masterpiece; monstrous and endearing at the same time. And it is no wonder that Morton got an Oscar nomination as well for her role as Hattie - she is a character that just gently pervades the entire film (she is also the woman that pervades Emmet's life - whether he likes it or not). I was delighted by this un-Hollywood, un-Woody Allenish film. It was great." --Jo C, West Sussex.

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall