Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

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Love vs. Passion

If you were the greatest guitar player in the 20’s-30’s jazz era, (second only to Django Reinhardt) would you consider giving it all up for love? Is there any contest between love and passion to a true artist? What if it was only when you have found and lost the love of your life that you can bring out the best of you in your performance? Well, I don’t expect anyone to find out the answers to these provocative questions, but it does make you wonder “What If?’’

Sweet and Lowdown is as bitter sweet as the title suggests. It celebrates the kind of classic 1930’s jazz that has been played through the soundtrack of many a previous Allen film, and that finally has the chance to occupy center stage. Like several of Allen’s other films (e.g.Zelig), Sweet and Lowdown is occasionally interrupted by interviews with critics and biographers like Allen, Nat Hentoff, and Douglas McGrath, who comment on the film’s plot as if the characters were real-life people.

A mockumentary about a fictional, 30’s traveling jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), who embodies the debonair and the spirit of the music that he plays and is yet; for the lack of words, gut-wrenching when off stage. He admires Django and yet calls him “this gypsy in France.” Every time he sees his superior he faints or runs away. Which provides quite a few laughs in the film. Emmet boasts of his skills on guitar, which is indeed magical. He is also a kleptomaniac, a trait which has not been psychoanalyzed in this movie. Emmet’s idea of a great time is shooting rats at the dumpster; here too the audience enjoys a good laugh and tries to figure out, how can a man who creates magic on stage can be so repulsive?

Emmet is a very complex and frustrated individual for whom one develops equal amounts of disgust and pity as an audience. He has an egotistical bravado and is interestingly dysfunctional.  He sees himself as charming and romantic as opposed to sad and lonely which is a fact. What we are told about him is that, what’s making him second best in his field is the fact that his music lacks emotions. He is anything but emotional. He goes from women to women with meaningless liaisons and prefers it this way.

Emmet: ”I’m an artist. I like women but they gotta have their place.” 

All this changes when he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton) a mute laundress. She is drawn to Emmet’s music and enjoys spending time with him. Emmet on the other hand is not very pleased to meet her but gradually starts falling for her, for she never has anything to say which makes her the perfect match for Emmet who loves to chat. They move to Hollywood where Hattie is casted in a movie wherein she has to kiss a handsome lead actor. She takes dozens of retakes while doing so and is said to have gone in a “Small coma after 30 takes.” Now Emmet feels like he has been sidelined (feeling jealous of Hattie’s success) and so decides to move back home. Being the free willed he is, Emmet soon abandons Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman) a socialite/ author with a penchant for artistic men.  They both get married. Blanche is fascinated by the worldliness of Emmet and keeps making notes about him in her notepad

Blanche: “Wow, not only are you vain and egotistical, but you have genuine crudeness!”

She digs deep into Emmet’s lack of emotions and confronts him one day to break him the harsh reality.

Blanche: “You keep your feelings all locked up, so you can’t feel anything for anyone else. I’ve never met anybody so afraid to show their feelings.”

Blanche, in next to no time leaves Emmet for a hit-man (to everyone’s amusement) who engulfs her with stories about mob intrigue.  In the end, Emmet realizes what a huge mistake he did on letting Hattie go. He decides to get her back but soon comes to know that Hattie is now happily married and is raising a family.

Emmet finally breaks down in tears and realizes that he “made a mistake” (in leaving Hattie). The narrator then points out to the audience that from that point on Emmet was in every way Django’s equal.

Sweet and lowdown was an emotional comedy. Stars like Sean Penn and Samantha Morton brought Emmet and Hattie to life. With 3 wins and 13 nominations for various prestigious awards, the movie was one of the better celebrated works of Allen.  The film with its approach to seem more real than fiction; tries to integrate both the aspects to the T. Woody sure knows how to mix music and drama on the big screen in which love triumphs all.

Apart from the drama, what stood out more was the beautiful jazz soundtrack. The credit of course goes to Dick Hyman for arranging and conducting the music for the film and to Howard Alden for the guitar solos and coaching Sean Penn on playing those solos for his role in the film.

Sweet and Lowdown was well received by the audience and holds fresh ratings (78%) on Rotten Tomatoes and a 70 on Metacritic, indicating favorable view. It is a charming, light-hearted comedy with quality acting. A must “Must watch.”

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