Of all the Woody Allen movies not starring Allen, my pet favorite is 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. (He’s in the picture, but only as himself in interviews.) Allen nursed the project for a long time; it would have been his first for United Artists had they not demanded a comedy (which it only sort of is). Though not necessarily a labor of love any more than his Bergmanian dramas or his richer comedies, Sweet and Lowdown does radiate a certain heavily invested warmth absent from more recent misfires, not to mention the previous year’s caustic Celebrity, to which this served as something of a corrective.
Two of the director’s great loves – music and Fellini – make the foundation. A kind-of faux-biopic about one of the world’s great jazz guitarists, the film’s main characters and central story arc quite baldly ape La Strada, right down to a closing scene in which a guitar smashing (“I made a mistake!”) substitutes for Anthony Quinn’s oceanside breakdown. I hadn’t yet seen Fellini’s film when I first saw Sweet and Lowdown, but the explosion of regret didn’t lose its incredible power once I realized how much of it was homage – it simply triggered conscious appreciation for the older work.
Sean Penn does his best work outside of Mystic River here, as guitarist Emmet Ray, an insecure gasbag at all times except those when he has his axe in hand. Pompous and vulgar, Ray’s favorite hobbies are shooting rats at the dump and bragging (“First time I had sex – seven years old.”) The source of his pain, which Penn insinuates beautifully, is that deep down he knows how insufferable he is. His most crucial and touching tic is never failing to asterisk his boast of being the world’s greatest guitarist with the acknowledgment that there is “this gypsy” (Django Reinhardt) who is Ray’s sole superior. In the movie’s most outrageous sequence, Ray faints after spotting his idol following a disputed heist. In a role that landed her a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination, Samantha Morton is remarkable as Ray’s mute, impossibly forgiving girlfriend Hattie. While in some ways a Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina impersonation, Morton makes the role her own, hiding the pain inflicted by Ray’s abusive remarks and ghastly insensitivity with a warm smile.
Sweet and Lowdown is equally in love with music (Howard Alden is the talented ringer on guitar) and music lore, and Allen has a lot of fun toying with the slipperiness of handed-down jazz blues legends. Something like Zelig meets Bullets Over Broadway in form, it does suffer from mild schizophrenia, but like a finger-flying Emmet Ray solo it always finds the melody again. It plays at Film Forum January 2nd.