Woody Allen: Sweet and Lowdown

Sean Penn and Samantha Morton star in Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen’s fake documentary about the world’s second greatest guitar player.

SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)
Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman and Anthony LaPaglia
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
95 minutes

Sweet and Lowdown is a hilarious and bittersweet exploration of how having   a talent can make us great, but also completely ruin our lives.   Writer/Director Woody Allen had tried the fake- documentary style before with Zelig (1983) with completely amusing results, yet this film is stronger because it relies on story rather than special effects.

Through a combination of talking heads and flashbacks that may or may not have actually happened, jazz historians (including, of course, a cameo from Allen) debate the mythology of one of the depression-era’s greatest guitar players, Emmett Ray (Sean Penn).

While Emmett is an artist completely comfortable touting his own brilliance, he also can’t deny that there is one man more talented than him: Django Reinhardt. Django’s beautiful guitar music provides the soundtrack for the film.

Almost every other character in the film tells Emmett that he’d be just as good as Django if he’d open up and let his emotions come out in his music. Emmett meanwhile seems to believe that Django is better than him because he’s a god like creature who therefore must be feared.

Part of the Emmett mythology the jazz historians tell the audience is that Emmett would run away in fear every chance he had to meet the legendary musician.   The mythology stories, such as Emmett running away from Django or chasing after his cheating wife are the funniest sequences in the film.   Allen knows how to do absurdity very, very well.  

The other great thing about this film, of course, is the performances. One of Allen’s greatest strengths as a director is that he gets exactly what he wants from his actors and usually it’s their best (or at least Oscar-winning) performances: Keaton in Annie Hall, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aprodite, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona.  

Sean Penn is obviously strong as the hot headed lead, as you can read by my review of the film Milk (2008) I’ve never seen a Penn film where the actor didn’t impress me by his performance. In this film Penn makes sure that while Emmett is completely soaked in narcissism, he still has that tiny bit of humanity so that the character doesn’t come across simply a joke.

As great as Penn is, it’s Samantha Morton as Emmett’s one true love Hattie who shines. Without uttering a single line of dialogue in the entire film Morton gives Hattie a vulnerability and naiveté that’s completely endearing. As an audience member you’re outraged when Emmett dumps Hattie for the vapid fashionista Blanche (Uma Thurman), because you know what Hattie offered Emmett was so much more real. And therein lies the tragedy of the film. Talent may get you so far, but when you waste your life with selfish pursuits you’ll never be a complete or happy person. Hattie may be nothing more than a mute laundress the rest of her life, but you know she’ll always be happier than Mr. great artiste.

Usually I’ll add a trailer for the film I’ve reviewed at the end of my blog post. But this time I thought to get you in the mood to watch this film I’d leave you with some of the music from Django Reinhardt. Happy Friday everyone!

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