[box cover]

Sweet and Lowdown

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton,
and Uma Thurman

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Woody Allen's 30th film, Sweet and Lowdown, is in many ways the quintessential Woody film. Almost all of his favorite themes are in place, as well as his most notable flaws. It's a classic Woody tale of the wrong-headed artist/protagonist who tosses aside the love of a good woman for a not-so-good one and only figures it out when it's too late. It's territory Mr. Allen has trod many times before — so many times, in fact, that it's become threadbare.

The fictional story is presented as a docudrama about jazz legend Emmett Ray, a guitarist second only in genius to the great Django Reinhardt — a fact which haunts and obsesses the ego-driven artist. He has two notable romantic relationships, one with the devoted, mute Hattie and an ill-fated marriage to a society dame with a jones for bad boys. That's pretty much the plot.

And, like many of Allen's films, it's not to so much an homage to another great director's work as it is outright theft. This time it's Fellini's 1954 masterpiece La Strada, in which Anthony Quinn as a brutish, womanizing circus performer victimizes the simple-minded waif who loves him. There was a time that this self-reference to Allen's favorite directors was charming and clever. Sometimes, however, it's simply embarrassing.

Sean Penn appears to do his best to bring some interest to the role of Emmett, but as written by Allen he isn't given much to work with. Like every character in this film, Emmett is one-dimensional — more a representation of a type than a full-blooded person. Taking biographical bits from the lives of jazz musicians makes sense for a character like this, but what Allen has done is distill the character so much that the end result is little more than an archetype. Emmett Ray is a profligate spender, a hard drinker, and a compulsive thief . When we first encounter him he's also a pimp (not an uncommon story at all — quite a few jazz musicians were known to pick up extra cash as "managers", running a string of girls on the side). He's incapable of any kind of self-analysis or romantic commitment. But oh, he's a brilliant guitarist, and for that he's forgiven (almost) anything.

As in virtually all of Allen's love stories, the hero is horrible to the one woman who truly loves him. In this case it's the luminescent Samantha Morton as Hattie, who may or may not be a little slow, in addition to being unable to speak. Hattie's love for Emmett is simple and pure, and Emmett abuses it horribly then abandons her when he realizes the depth of her feelings. Morton creates the only really believable — or sympathetic — character in the film and well deserved her Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Then again, she may simply seem so good because the other main characters in Sweet and Lowdown are so poorly written — her lack of dialogue definitely works in her favor in that regard.

And it really is the writing in this movie that drags it down. In most of Allen's later films, the characters replay individual themes, repeating statements and questions again and again, as if the script were a piece of music and each character a different instrument. And it's easy to see why, in a film about a jazz musician, Allen would choose to lean so heavily on that technique here. But it doesn't work. Emmett's repeated themes of trains, shooting rats at the dump, Django Reinhardt, and "I'm an artist" become all there is to the character, as does Uma Thurman's repeated questions about "How did you feel when...?" and "What goes through your mind when you...?", turning her into a caricature. Morton's silence seems positively multi-faceted by comparison.

The music is the one high point of this film. The soundtrack consists of mostly new recordings of jazz classics in the style of Django, and they are sublime. Rather than renting or buying this movie, here's an alternate suggestion — go get the soundtrack, turn the lights down low, lay back, and just enjoy the music.

Good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), pan-and-scan on the flip side, Dolby Digital 5.1. Trailers, cast-and-crew notes.

— Dawn Taylor

Get it at Reel.com

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Back to Main Page

© 2000, The DVD Journal