Emmet Ray is a scumbag. He’s insecure, he’s a braggart, he’s obnoxious. He uses women like shots of bathtub gin, downing them one right after the other. He’s a two-bit hustler, an alcoholic and a kleptomaniac.
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Emmet Ray is also the world’s greatest jazz guitarist—make that the second-greatest guitar player (there’s this “gypsy over in Europe” named Django Reinhardt who’s so good Emmet faints when he hears him play). Emmet finds serene joy in delirious jazz. When he puts his fingers to the strings of a guitar, he holds a room spellbound in pin-drop silence.
In the hands of director Woody Allen and actor Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown is a fascinating and flawed biography of this fictional jazz legend from the 1930s who made a few brilliant recordings then disappeared into the obscurity of history. By the end of the movie, it’s easy to see why the guy vanished without a trace—he self-destructed his own legend.
Borrowing a trick from Warren Beatty’s Reds, Allen punctuates Sweet and Lowdown with talking-head “witnesses” who wax rhapsodic about the fabled second-greatest jazz guitarist. Allen, of course, is the first person we see on screen, he’s followed by historians, a disc jockey and Nat Hentoff (another jazz legend). They described a reckless genius, a tortured ne’er-do-well who showed up for gigs “late, drunk or not at all.”
We watch Ray move from girl to girl with callous ease. He skips through love as nimbly as his well-manicured fingers dance across the strings, never letting any dame penetrate his psyche. “You keep your feelings all locked up inside,” one lover tells him. Ray frowns, then mutters, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Ray paves over his troubled soul with an intense devotion to music. Here’s where Sweet and Lowdown really comes alive. Penn takes the stage and strums Sweet Georgia Brown, I’ll See You in My Dreams and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles on his guitar and the result is hypnotic—even for viewers who might otherwise not lend an ear to early jazz.
Music is always important to Allen’s more thoughtful films (every time I hear Gershwin, Manhattan flashes through my brain), but here it’s positively infectious. Working with longtime collaborator Dick Hyman, the Woodman recreates the syncopated era with toe-tapping authenticity. Guitarist Howard Alden “ghosts” the playing for Penn, but you’d never know it from the way the actor deftly fingers the strings for the camera.
Off-stage, however, Ray is another story. His idea of a fun date is shooting rats at the city dump. Right there, that should tell you everything you need to know about his character.
He’s constantly chattering, always fretting about his rival, the great Reinhardt. He could be a great artist and a decent lover if it weren’t for the fact that his ego stifles every conversation. Then one day, he meets his perfect romantic match—Hattie, a mute girl who falls in love with Ray at first sight and endures his blow-hard babble with a saintlike patience.
Now here’s where I wax rhapsodic for a minute…The British actress Samantha Morton plays Hattie in a wordless performance which deservedly earned an Oscar nomination (Penn also got an Oscar nod). Morton doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, but she speaks volumes with her eyes, her mouth, even the way she walks down a sidewalk. This is one of the most condensed performances I’ve seen in a long time. Morton revives the lost art of pantomime in a way we haven’t seen since the silent days of Gish, Pickford and Keaton. It is, in short, acting that leaves the viewer speechless.
I just wish Hattie had an even bigger role in the story than one of the love ’em and leave ’em girls in Ray’s life (though she is the most unforgettable). Uma Thurman as a social butterfly is another; Gretchen Mol as a dizzy-headed date gets even less screen time. The women are all there to serve as lumps of coal stoking the fire of Ray’s ego (though I suspect that if Hattie had a voice, she’d use it to put Ray in his place).
Watching Sweet and Lowdown, I kept waiting for some redeeming qualities (other than incredible guitar playing) to show up in Ray’s character. By the time the end credits flashed on the screen, I was still waiting.
And that’s the film’s central flaw: the character has no arc, no movement from Point A to Point B—a scumbag at the start, a scumbag to the end.
Still, I ask myself, why did I like Sweet and Lowdown so much?
Was it the enthusiasm Allen brings to his subject? Yes.
Was it the way the Depression-era jazz clubs were recreated down to the last detail through cinematography, props and costumes? Absolutely.
Was it the never-disappointing Penn who always seems to slip inside the skin of his characters like he was donning a flesh-suit? That’s the ticket, Daddy-o.
Was it Morton’s outstanding breakthrough performance? Yowza!
Despite its static character development, Sweet and Lowdown is another of Allen’s movies where his passion for the project spills over into every frame. Stardust Memories and Manhattan are two others that come to mind. Allen is well-known for his love of jazz and he’s set some of his best movies back in the Depression era. Sweet and Lowdown is nothing if not intimate.
Unfortunately, it’s got other things working against it. In the end, it’s nothing more than a flat, one-dimensional portrait of an artist as a song man (with apologies to James Joyce). It’s passionately rendered, but not very engaging. Ray’s girlfriends all complain that he keeps his emotions bottled up inside. The same could be said for the movie.
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