Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

We all know about Woody Allen's first passion, which is film making. The man has over 45 directorial credits to his name. But not as many are familiar with his second passion -- jazz. Allen himself performs regularly in a New Orleans jazz band. So what a joy it must have been for him to combine his two passions and create a film that is devoted entirely to jazz music.

In Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn plays fictional 1930s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, who according to himself, is the best jazz guitarist in the world, with the exception of a "french gypsy" who goes by the name of Django Reinhardt. The movie, in a sense, is a biopic about Ray, who may be fictional, but Allen at least gives the viewer the impression that he may be real; throughout the narrative, "musical experts," including Allen himself, chime in and give their thoughts on Ray's life and career, as if the movie was a VH1 "Where are they now?" documentary.

Django Reinhardt, meanwhile, is very real -- though probably unknown to anyone outside of jazz circles. Born in 1910, Reinhardt is considered a pioneer for the genre, and is credited for inventing a new type of jazz during his heyday. Undoubtedly, Reinhardt is one of Allen's heroes, and Sweet and Lowdown is his tribute to the musician, who died in 1957 of a brain hemorrhage.

As Emmet Ray, Sean Penn is selfish, egotistical, rude, unkempt and misogynistic -- but man, can he strum the guitar. Rarely without a drink or a woman by his side, his attitude, along with his laissez-faire lifestyle, often gets him in trouble with his employers. However, with his talent, he never takes long finding work, even if it involves a brief stint as a pimp, or as he calls it, a "manager."

Though as narcissistic as they come, Ray loses all ability to function properly just at the mere mention of the name Django Reinhardt -- who represents more of a concept in the film than a character. He's never met Reinhardt, but openly admits that every time he listens to his music, he has fainted. Plain and simple, he knows he'll never be as good as him, and it kills him.

Sean Penn as Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown
In the beginning of the film, Ray is amid a fling with a women (Molly Price), who tells him, "You keep your feelings all locked up and you can't feel nothing for anybody else," to which Ray unabashedly acknowledges, responding that, as an artist, he "lets all of his feelings out in his music."

Ray's next two relationships could not be more different. He and his band's drummer (Brian Markinson), while prowling for women, befriend two women with the soul intention of seducing them. As luck will have it, the women Ray hones in on, Hattie (Samantha Morton) is a mute, and is unable to speak. Uncomfortable at first with the situation, Ray ends up developing a relationship with her, probably because she's the first women who doesn't criticize him, because, well, she can't.

It's with Hattie when Ray is finally able to let out his feelings, somewhat, but like he treats all women who enter his life, he warns her not to fall in love with him. His other relationship is with Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is the polar opposite of Hattie. She is very outspoken, and often poses Freudian psychological questions to Ray, wondering -- like his first fling -- why he holds in all of his feelings.

Samantha Morton as Hattie
Despite his repulsiveness, Ray is actually a hysterical character, thanks in large part to Woody Allen's great writing. His favorite hobbies include watching trains and going to the garbage dump to shoot rats. Additionally, his exchanges with the mute Hattie are nothing short of hilarious. And though she doesn't say a word, Samantha Morton delivers one of the more pleasant performances as Hattie, excelling in her facial features and expressions.

Like all Woody Allen movies, the story embraces its theme and setting -- in this case, jazz and the 1930s. The music will entertain, the wardrobes will captivate, and the dialogue will enchant. But Sweet and Lowdown is a story of fulfillment, and how a selfish man with an impeccable talent can't identify the important things in life, even when it's staring at him right in the eye. When it's all said and done, Emmet Ray finally makes that bittersweet discovery.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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