After the not-as-good-as-I-remembered-it Celebrity, it was refreshing to find that Woody Allen’s followup from 1999, Sweet and Lowdown, still holds up as one of my favourites. It was a critical success on its release but not widely popular, even though its leads deservedly received Oscar nominations.
Through a series of vignettes, this docu-drama-comedy tells the story of Emmet Ray, the 1930s self-proclaimed world’s best guitarist. Or second-best. “There’s this gypsy in France…” he often reminds people, Django Reinhardt, who is the real deal. While Emmet is technically brilliant on the bandstand, in life he’s a wreck. He is a narcissist, kleptomaniac, pimp and alcoholic, but he is also charming, flamboyant and extremely confident. Though he won’t admit it, Emmett falls in love with Hattie, a mute woman, but drops her when she expresses her love for him. When he finally realises he made a mistake, it’s too late.
In some ways, Sweet and Lowdown is classic Woody Allen: the swing music, the period, the faux documentary style with modern day talking heads commenting on everything. And like so many characters in Woody’s films, Emmet is circling fame but can’t quite make it. However in other ways, this is unlike classic Woody Allen. There is no magic realism at play, and in fact it’s a straight drama with a very traditional structure.
Something else which marks this film as different, and possible superior, to so many of Woody’s other films is the quality of the performances. Sean Penn as Emmet Ray is wonderful, completely committing to the role and inventing an entire physicality and voice to the character (as well as doing a great job miming the guitar playing). Matching him is Samantha Morton as the introvert Hattie, who has to act and react without saying a word.
This was Woody Allen’s first film with cinematographer Zhao Fei, and editor Alisa Lepselter, although visually Sweet and Lowdown is a seamless continuation from earlier period films such as Purple Rose of Cairo. Speaking of collaborators, the arrangements and original music is by Dick Hyman once again, and it’s guitarist Howard Alden playing for Sean Penn. The film’s soundtrack is one of Woody’s best, particularly “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, the song which Emmet plays just for Hattie.
Interestingly, this film’s genesis dates all the way back to Take The Money And Run in 1969. It was written as a follow-up, titled The Jazz Baby, and was to star Woody in the lead role. United Artists was expecting a wacky comedy, which Woody did make (Bananas) leaving this screenplay on the shelf for 30 years. Watching his films in sequence, I’m grateful for that decision, because there’s a maturity to Sweet and Lowdown that I don’t he could have pulled off so early on. There is depth and pathos to the characterisation of Emmet, too, which frankly Woody could never achieve.
It’s hard to put my finger on why this film appeals so much. Perhaps because it doesn’t have grand ambitions, and quietly, confidently achieves its goals. It is also not heavy handed, and it doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s not perfect however; Uma Thurman is pretty terrible as Emmet’s over-analysing wife who wants to understand what the musician feels and thinks about everything.
I also like the slight twist on the tortured artist genre. There’s no self-doubt here. Emmet knows he’s great, and frequently tells everyone so, masking deep insecurities with a lavish lifestyle. It demonstrates Woody Allen’s skill as a writer that when Emmet finally reaches his catharsis and gives in to his feelings the film neatly wraps up without any drawn out, mawkish emotion. Emmet Ray might actually be one of Woody Allen’s best characters, and Hattie one of his most unlikely given she never speaks.
Really the only drawback watching the film this week is that my DVD copy is pan-and-scan, not even anamorphic widescreen like other 90s Woody Allen. Unconscionable. The good news is the entire film is on Youtube in its correct aspect ratio, embedded below in case you’re in the mood.
Next week: Small Time Crooks