Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

I often suggest that Sony Pictures Classics does few if any wrongs, having been disappointed by none of the movies I’ve bought with their label on them. This isn’t strictly true. There is one mistake I’m still miffed about, and this is it. Or, was it. What, the film? Oh, no. The fact that later editions of the DVD omit the original aspect ratio in favour of a re-formatted fullscreen, pan-and-scan transfer. I recently found a copy of the hard-to-find widescreen original release and put it in quickly to make sure this lone copy I could find was not damaged. I recall enjoying the film the first time around, and wondering that same question we all seem to have watching this–is it a dramatization of a real life or completely made up?

Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is the best guitarist in the world–well, except for a Gypsy in France (Django Reinhardt of course, played in his passing moment by Michael Sprague), and is the subject of this Woody Allen film (writing and directing, as per most of them, but not starring). He and various other people who are–many, if not all, real–jazz and musical historians and the like. We are toured through an episodic view of Ray’s life, theoretically based on scant information on his existence, various stories of his meetings with Reinhardt (inevitably leading to Ray fainting), and some of his experiences with women. He begins as a pimp with grand ideas of himself–planning a fancy stage entrance and taking money from the prostitutes he employs while being taken for great amounts of money at pool* during the Depression. While he and drummer Bill Shields (Brian Markinson) are on a day off attempting to pick up women, they unwittingly stumble across a statuesque redhead paired with a quiet smaller woman. Ray ends up with the smaller woman–Hattie (Samantha Morton)–only to discover she is a mute. The two bond quickly, but Ray’s ways leave him skipping out on Hattie quickly to seek his fame and fortune, marrying the next pretty woman he runs across, Blanche (Uma Thurman).

Allen’s style is so often inextricably linked with his starring roles–and his own peculiar mannerisms and speech patterns that the skill he has at writing and directing is occasionally lost in the characterization of his films as simply the personality he portrays himself as having in his films. Here, though, we have Penn playing one of his lighter roles–also in contrast to his actual personality as understood by the public, which is either ragingly political, or just raging. He’s a bit of a goof as Ray, but intentionally so. Ray is a comedic figure, there’s no doubt about this, having an ego greater than his talent at the guitar, which is certainly something in and of itself. Despite this he manages to be endearing–even when he’s a blunt jerk to everyone, especially the endlessly sweet Hattie. When a woman tells him he bottles his feelings up, he refuses to admit it, and we haven’t seen nearly as much of it as we soon will–his reaction to Hattie is mortal fear of commitment and showing his feelings for her. He says crude and insulting things to her–not directly, but in the implicit omissions of other statements he makes, but perhaps it’s because we can see a sweet magnetism between the two of them, because even Hattie seems to get it, even when it bothers or hurts her, that Emmet means nothing by it, and sincerely likes her. Of course, this is of some appeal to me as a quiet romantic, and the conflicting external appearance appeals in some fashion to my sense of humour.

Uma Thurman as always seems both wooden and overacting. Like her role in Pulp Fiction, though, it seems appropriate. Blanche is a pretty superficial woman, interested in and turned on by the stories and lives of others and having little of her own, thinking of herself as a writer (and speaking as one, too). But Penn and Morton are thankfully more central, and this makes Morton even more compelling and pleasing when seen in comparison to Blanche. The best conceit, though, is the way it’s treated like a documentary, with all of the interviews interspersed between the dramatization, and by people who are absolutely fantastic as storytellers and as seeming like they are recalling these things from memory. Allen’s character that we know so well is what is used here and it is fantastic for the act of storytelling, and listening to him tell the stories of a character he made up are completely delightful. The choice to insert the multiple dramatizations of an incident at a gas station in complete violation of the usual approach to documentaries–at least the dramatization of the different sets of events–and to manage to do so in such a way that does not break the flow of perceived realism is brilliant.

It’s a great little movie and in no way lets down my opinion of Sony Pictures Classics. I am a fan of Allens’ more well-known and characteristic films, but this one is even better without him controlling the proceedings from inside as well as out. The characters are fun and ridiculous–especially Ray’s self-justifications and interpersonal philosophizing that do not bear close scrutiny nor their own weight, making it possible for us to easily see the truth when Ray appears again in front of Hattie and says of course he’s “not saying [he] miss[es her], either…”

*By Chris Bauer, who had a large role in the second season of The Wire, as well as the excellent performance he placed in Brad Anderson’s Masters of Horror episode “Sounds Like.”

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