“Low Down” (2014)
You know it’s going to be a long, hard ride when a film starts with a teenage daughter watching her father being arrested on the street from their seedy Hollywood apartment window. The relationship between the father, a noted jazz bebop pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes) and his daughter, Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) is complicated and maddening. Amy-Jo would rather be the adoring daughter but too often she has to play the adult in the relationship, especially when Joe has relapsed back into the world of heroin addiction.
Joe is a world-famous musician who has played with Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Joe has talent but is cursed by the times (it’s the early 70s, a time that jazz has lost most of its popularity) and by his addiction, despite numerous attempts to stay clean. Amy-Jo’s world is complicated by a mother, played by Lena Headey, who isn’t around most of the time, and when she is around, she is drunk. Amy-Jo and her father live in a one-room apartment that she must leave when her father wants to shoot up or have sex with his wife. She spends a great deal of her time in the hallway or the lobby, sometimes accompanied by the next-door neighbor kid, whose mother is a prostitute and a fellow addict. The only stability that Amy-Jo knows is her grandmother (Glen Close), who gives her a place to stay and a shoulder to cry on the times that her father is in jail, rehab or on tour. Joe is surrounded by friends who are fellow addicts. It’s a life filled with musicians, singers and actors, whom are all on their way down. Their neighbors are people looking for their next score and willing to do just about anything to get it.
“Low Down” is a depressing, slow descent of addiction that is based on the memoir of Amy-Jo Albany, brought to the screen by director and co-writer Jeff Preiss. Preiss along with co-writer Topper Lilien, bring us into a world of desperation and depression, one that we only have the slightest hope that Amy-Jo can escape. Unfortunately, the script isn’t the tearjerker that you want it to be, with transitions abruptly cutting from scene to scene, making the whole film seeming disconnected. There are several emotional scenes in the film, but are just not enough. One especially moving scene is between Amy-Jo and her mother where they bare their souls. Unfortunately, the movie never quite gets up a head of steam, and it becomes frustrating to see the characters only react to their circumstances. We rarely see the reason behind their actions, leaving us with very little insight into the people that make up this downtrodden world. The film does have the feel of the 70’s Hollywood underworld, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt lighting the film with a hazy, almost orange glow that seems to continually have dust particles dancing across the screen. Costumer Jennifer Johnson and production designer Elliott Hostetter perfectly capture the depressing 70’s California scene with grubby apartments, dark bars and clubs that have seen better times.
The love of music seems to keep Amy-Jo and Joe close and the soundtrack, produced by Ohad Talmor, is a fantastic mix of jazz classics by Albany himself, along with Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk with some newer recordings by Russ Johnson and Jacob Sacks.
The heart of this film and the reason to see it, is the cast’s performance. It starts with John Hawkes, who is his usual brilliant self. Hawkes makes us root for a character that is flawed and doomed to disappoint. Hawkes shows us a man who loves his daughter very much, but will never be able to be the man and father whom she needs. We see the joy in his face when he interacts with Amy-Jo, and we see the pain when he lets her down, time after time. Hawkes doesn’t just play his part; he inhabits them and makes you believe that he is a great jazz pianist and a man who is horribly addicted to a drug that will ruin him. Equally brilliant is Glen Close, playing the resilient mother of Joe, who knows that no matter what she says or does, he will continue to make mistakes based on his need for drugs. The love for her son and granddaughter is what drives her, and Close makes sure that we know it. Elle Fanning gives the greatest performance of her life. The film works best when we see what is happening through her eyes. She plays Amy-Jo with the naiveté of a teenager that continually hopes her father has turned the page with his addiction, only to be disappointed to the brink of despair. The supporting cast is filled out with a small role by Peter Dinklage as a neighbor who is an actor and a incredibly moving performance by Flea, as a musician who is in awe of Joe’s talent and happens to be an addict himself.
“Low Down” is a film filled with great performances, but is let down by a script that is long and never lets us fully relate to its characters. It’s a film that I just wish has listened to its own soundtrack and let the film flow instead of stopping and starting too many times. My Rating: Bargain Matinee
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
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