Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

1999-12-03 (Limited release)

Woody Allen introduces his fictionalized bio-pic of “forgotten” jazz guitarist Emmett Ray with the question, “Why Emmett Ray?” We may ask the same question, but it really doesn’t matter why Emmett Ray, or even if Emmett Ray actually existed, when Allen lets the amusing anecdotes and snappy dialogue fly and for the next hour and a half, has the audience snickering at the pitfalls and pratfalls of this self-styled musical genius.

Less a masturbatory exercise than Allen’s Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity (though both were often hilarious), Sweet and Lowdown deconstructs the myth of the musical genius with a pseudo-documentary style that intercuts episodes in Emmett Ray’s life with commentaries from Allen and various jazz historians, DJs, and writers. The currently trendy phenomenon of the bio-pic on television, brought to the masses by VH1’s “Behind the Music” superstar exposes, makes this style particularly ironic when used to tell the story of a fictionalized artist who is both unknown and historically irrelevant, at least to those outside the world of obscure jazz history.

The title of the film says it all. Sweet and Lowdown is about polarities: the beauty and depth of Emmett’s talent contrasted with his self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing personality; the two women in his life, the mute Hattie (Samantha Morton), who offers unconditional love and servitude, and the loquacious Blanche (Uma Thurman), who offers bland psychoanalytical observations and proves unfaithful; and ultimately, the music itself (one of Allen’s many personal obsessions), the depression-era swing which is both rhythmically jaunty and melodically melancholy.

Emmett Ray is a phenomenal guitar player who, in his own words, “was amazing the second I picked up the instrument.” Despite and because of his boastfulness, the movie suggests, he truly is an amazing artist. However, as a human being, he is a complete failure, and it is his selfishly eccentric personality that drives this fascinating story. Whether Emmett Ray is a character invented wholly by Allen or based on actual people embellished by the writer, we don’t care, because his delusions of grandeur lead to absurdly comic situations.

For example, in an effort to emphasize his own greatness, Emmett dreams up an entrance like no other, in which he will be lowered onto the stage, seated on a giant, sparkling wooden moon. He has the fabulous piece constructed, only to have the entrance spoiled, to hilarious effect, by his own drunken clumsiness and bad planning. Horrified and embarrassed by the disaster, Emmett then smashes the wooden crescent moon to bits while lamenting, “Sooner or later, everyone’s dreams go up in smoke.”

At moments like these, viewers may be reminded of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, which characterized Mozart as a childish, self-absorbed, drunken prodigy, who, nonetheless, produces music so beautiful, it seems divinely inspired. While Forman’s Mozart is a true genius, apparently justified in his egomania, Allen’s Emmett Ray is depicted as a man who has limitations but can not recognize. The only exception to his overwhelming self-love comes when he compares himself to a Parisian Gypsy named Django Reinhardt, whose guitar playing invariably reduces Emmett to tears or makes him faint, or both. Emmett’s obsessive adoration of Django makes for some amusing scenes, climaxing in a very funny episode when Emmett accidentally comes face to face with his idol.

This particular story exemplifies how the film complicates “history” (of obscure jazz or, by extension, any attempt to recall and fix the past). In this case, we see two Emmett “experts” tell versions of a story about Emmett confronting his wife Blanche and her lover, gangster Al Torrio (Anthony LaPaglia). We see both comic versions, and then Woody tells a third which ends with Emmett crashing Torrio’s car into a car full of jazz musicians. The musicians get out of the car, and who should appear but Django Reinhardt, the sight of whom makes Emmett faint dead in the middle of the road. It’s a clever scene, punctuated by Allen as-talking-head, describing Emmett as “pathologically phobic” about Django.

Emmett’s Django-phobia is not his only pathological idiosyncrasy. He is kleptomaniac — we see him steal a silver tray from the house of his fellow musicians, and then toss it away later. He is an incorrigible alcoholic — he drinks himself into a blackout stupor and disappears for four days, missing a gig in Atlantic City and ending up in a motel in Connecticut. The only activities that seem to soothe his restless soul watching trains roll by and shooting rats with a .45 (a weapon which he feels free to wave around in plain sight, a giant accessory for his giant ego). With all of these bizarre characteristics, Emmett Ray cannot help but be a tragically hilarious character, but his irresponsible behavior is not without its consequences.

One instance of such consequences comes after the incident with the wooden moon, when he meets Hattie, a laundress whom he picks up while strolling along the Atlantic City Boardwalk with his drummer Harry (James Urbaniak). Emmett is first disappointed to learn that she is mute (“I want a talking girl”), but later finds that this is an ideal quality in a woman. She never resists his incessant self-worship and she lacks the voice with which to undercut him. Hattie (brought to life in true silent-era expressiveness by British actress Morton) seems to take all his self-love with a grain of salt. On top of which, she cooks, cleans, changes tires, and puts up with his blatant womanizing. Who could ask for more?

Eventually Emmett does want more, apparently: he insists repeatedly that “as an artist,” he can not be tied down. And so, he picks up and leaves one night, only to meet Blanche, a manipulative socialite and writer who marries him for his value as a potential literary character. He gets his come-uppance when she cheats on him with Al Torrio (whom she considers another “artistic” conquest) and leaves Emmett to his own inept devices.

Even though Sean Penn brings a phenomenally hysterical freshness to Emmett Ray (and he played a similarly mustachioed maniac in Hurly Burly, without the artistic genius), Sweet and Lowdown is familiar ground for Woody Allen, replete with his usual themes. The irresponsible genius whose womanizing is excused by his prodigious talent and surrounded one-dimensional women characters (i.e., Hattie is all “sweet,” Blanche, no more than “lowdown”). It is the innocent, unschooled, and absolute devotion of Hattie that is somehow presented as an ideal, contrasted with Blanche’s cold intellectualism. Penn and Morton’s performances are as endearing as they are comically pathetic, and it is a boon to this film that Allen decided to exclude himself from this film as an actor, appearing as himself (who else?) simply as a narrator and commentator. All in all, Sweet and Lowdown is very funny and very touching, without the annoying self-indulgence that generally pervades Allen’s work, and, in all respects it is both sweet, with its lovably ridiculous characters, and lowdown, with predictably problematic views of women, who, like Emmett’s .45, are either accessories, or dangerous weapons, depending on their intellectual level and vocal ability.