Sweet and Lowdown (PG)
IT IS a telling sign that it was the two stars, Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, of this latest Woody Allen film who received Oscar nominations while its creator was overlooked.
Yet while Allen may still be something resembling persona non grata within Hollywood circles, it is less easy to ignore his work when it contains performances like those given by Penn and Morton.
Sweet and Lowdown is the compelling, tragi-comic biographical tale of a fictional 1930s jazz guitar genius, Emmett Ray, whose star shines vivid bright before plummetting to earth.
It is Allen’s most personal film for years, centring on his love of jazz and his incredible knowledge of the working of the halcyon years of jazz when the music ands those who played it were both in its infancy and at its most creative.
Enveloped by an atmosphere straight out of the Cotton Club, and with an astounding central performance by Penn, this is perhaps as pure a jazz film as there has ever been, spotlighting the deeply flawed geniuses who drifted through the US jazz scenes, forging legends as they drank, fought and seduced their way across America.
Allen presents Ray, his anti-hero/hero, as exactly that. Ray is prodigiously talented. He is also a pimp, drunk, kleptomaniac and an obnoxious braggart. None-too-bright, Ray’s fingers nevertheless play gold. Penn plays all his own songs and the camera lingers on them.
Morton, on the other hand, displays all the incredible versatility which has made her one of the hottest young actresses on both sides of the Atlantic. She exudes waves of adoration as the mute Hattie, Ray’s undemanding child-woman girlfriend, which makes his poor treatment of her all the more reprehensible. She appeals to him because he is little more than a child himself.
Sweet and Lowdown, though a period picture set within a specific and limited movie genre, boasts many of the familiar Allen trademarks which stamp it indelibly with his quirkiness.
There’s the painter who ‘plays’ a saw in church; a fat woman with a lousy singing voice; an obese man who does bird impressions. These characters are staples of any Allen movie.
Then there is Allen himself, who pops up as an enthusiastic on-screen narrator – one of several – praising Ray’s talent and describing his personality defects, like shooting rats at the dump or watching trains down at the goods yard in the name of a good time.
Penn completely loses himself in Emmet Ray – a vain, egotistical peacock with the attention span of a gnat who is pathologically phobic about his rivals. A fine film actor, he is revealed to have a flair for throwaway comedy, blending elements of Laurel and Hardy into his role. It’s very funny, and effortless.
A memorable movie, this may well be Allen’s best for years – his personal tribute to jazz and the self-destructive genius of the musicians who created it.