The thin line between reality and legend is a theme that Woody Allen has explored with great success in movies such as "Take the Money and Run", "Zelig", and "Broadway Danny Rose". He continues the tradition with "Sweet and Lowdown", the story of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, that is both heartfelt and funny.
We’re introduced to Emmet as he’s late-again-for a gig; instead of being on stage he’s shooting pool and pimping. The manager of the club and the restless audience soon forgive him, however, when he starts playing. Emmet is "the second best jazz guitarist in the world". Actually, Emmet professes to be the best, but is quick to qualify the statement, saying that "there’s a gypsy in France who may be better". That "gypsy" is Django Reinhardt, in actuality one of the greatest guitarists of the century. He cries whenever he hears Django’s playing, and faints at the sight of him. Emmet’s ego knows no bounds, and he justifies any questionable actions by invoking his status as a "Great Artist", as though that gives him the right to act with impunity. He’s crude, rude, selfish; he’s even a kleptomaniac. Thing is, the man really does play a sweet guitar. He’s a brilliant talent who consistently sabotages himself with his actions off stage.
The turning point in Emmet’s personal life comes when he and a friend manage to pick up two women on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. His date, Hattie, turns out to be mute, a fact which he callously mocks during their time together. But Hattie sees only the good side of Emmet; they connect and are soon a couple. Her love for him is unconditional, she even forgives him for a blatant infidelity. And though he’d never admit it, she is the great love of his life. But, like all good things that come to Emmet, he eventually forsakes Hattie. He falls for Blanche, a beautiful debutante who has a few published stories under her belt and wants to write about him. Blanche tells him that if he could just open up his emotions he would be Django’s equal. They marry impulsively, but Blanche soon falls for a gangster and leaves Emmet. The story progresses to a compacted version of the last years in Emmet’s life, a solitary artist with only his work to keep him company. There is an ironic footnote about what is considered his greatest song, written toward the end of his career. One commentator says that it was as if he’d opened up emotionally and it filled the song with passion.
Woody Allen uses a documentary device to frame the narrative, with noted musicians (including himself) and writers relating facts, anecdotes, and apocrypha about Emmet. The episodic style works beautifully in enhancing the image of an enigmatic figure whose legend grows over time with each retelling. In the story about Blanche and the gangster, for instance, he gets good comedic mileage by having several people tell their account, resulting in different versions of the same story.
Filmmaker Woody Allen’s love of classical jazz and the musicians who created it is evident. There’s great fondness in his depiction of the jazz clubs as well as the back rooms where the musicians get together to play for the sheer joy of it. It’s also a return to his continuing examination of fame and celebrity, from both the observer’s perspective and that of the artist himself. How much leeway do we give those whose talents we admire, and how much do they expect to take?
The cast, as always in Woody Allen’s films, is uniformly excellent. Sean Penn is absolutely marvelous as Emmet Ray, well deserving of his Oscar nomination. Penn is one of the best actors working today; he’s a true chameleon who loses himself in his characters, and he gives us a perfectly realized portrait of a totally self-involved genius. He’s also extremely funny. Samantha Morton gives a wonderful, heartfelt performance as Hattie. Her character is much like Gelsomina in Fellini’s "La Strada" - the films have definite similarities, particularly during the time on the road with Emmet and Hattie. Ms. Morton manages to convey worlds of inner emotion with no dialogue. She’s absolutely delightful. Anthony LaPaglia does a short but memorable turn as the mob muscle Blanche falls for. Only Uma Thurman, who is a beautiful Blanche, seems a bit forced in her role.
The cinematography and art direct direction are gorgeous; amber tones suffuse many scenes, giving the film a warm, antiquated look. As should be expected of a new movie, the transfer is flawless. The disk offers both the Pan and Scan and widescreen versions of the movie. The widescreen version is letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the anamorphic transfer is boasting with detail. The image is beautiful; the picturesque color scheme is rich and warm, the images crystal clear. Blacks are well preserved, giving the image depth, while the highlights are always well-balanced. No grain is evident in the presentation, giving the picture an absolutely stable quality. Further adding to the incredible visual presentation of this release is the fact that the compression is without flaws. Not a hint of artifacting is evident in this presentation, making "Sweet And Lowdown" another one of Columbia’s stellar releases.
Like most of Woody Allen’s DVDs, sound is Dolby Digital Mono. I was disappointed when I first read this, thinking that a film with a jazz musician as its lead character would lend itself perfectly to stereo at the very least. However, by the end of the film I found that I’d completely forgotten that I was listening to a single speaker. The sound is resonant and full; dialogue is clear and the often-incredible soundtrack of Jazz and Blues is very well served.
Extras on the disk are limited to trailers of several of Allen’s movies. Disappointing, but not unexpected as the director is resolute about simply releasing his films and letting them speak for themselves.
Woody Allen is the most prolific director in America. Not unlike his favorite filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, he has been steadily creating a body of work that is unrivaled by his contemporaries. While it may not be a masterpiece, "Sweet and Lowdown" is a very entertaining film. Crafted by a peerless artist and featuring fine performances, great music, and beautiful photography, this movie comes highly recommended.