Sweet and Lowdown

She doesn’t say a word but her expressions speak volumes. Hattie is a sweet and unassuming yong woman who washes clothes for a living and obeys the same lunch ritual every day. When jazz guitarist Emmett Ray first encounters her, he has no idea she’s mute. He’s so smitten that he doesn’t allow her to get in a word edgewise.

sweet and lowdownIt takes a while for Ray to catch on, but that’s Ray. The second greatest jazz guitarist on the face of the Earth, God has blessed Ray with musical talent but little common sense. Until he meets Hattie, Ray sees women as nothing more than cha tel. When he’s not making Depression era audiences swoon or cry he’s pimping prostitutes and drinking himself into a stupor.

Emmett Ray is such a colorful character you wonder how come you’ve never heard of him. That’s because Ray is the invention of writer-director Woody Allen, whose latest film “Sweet & Lowdown” celebrates two of the director’s passions: Jazz and nostalgia.

Delivered as a quasi-documentary with testimonials from some of Jazz’s most noted authorities, “Sweet & Lowdown” is one of Allen’s best films in years. Allen has proven his affection for the era with films like “Bullets Over Broadway,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Radio Days,” while “Zelig” showcased the director’s ability to convincingly create faux history.

There’s a lot to admire about “Sweet and Lowdown,” from the authentic period design to Dick Hyman’s snappy score, but it’s the performances of Sean Penn as Ray and Samantha Morton as Hattie that serve as the heart of the film. When either of them are on screen you can feel the film’s pulse beat with anticipation.

Penn is so flawless as Ray that he makes it look easy. He avoids the obvious pitfalls of playing a tormented artist and actually discovers person underneath. Actors love playing tormented artists because they’re showy. Penn delivers a performance and not a performance piece. He crawls under Ray’s skin and totally inhabits his world.

This is vital because Allen desperately needs us to believe in Ray for “Sweet and Lowdown” to work. One slip and the facade comes crashing down. It is the conviction of the cast and Allen that keeps that thin wall standing. Even at his most tiresome, you’re still willing to follow Ray anywhere Allen wants to take us.

Allen’s final destination isn’t nearly as engaging as the whistle stops along Ray’s life. Allen’s screenplay doesn’t give us the whole story, but explores Ray’s life through a series of second hand recollections by jazz historians, including Allen himself. Their stories afford us a small glimpse inside the mind of genius, perfectly realized by Penn. Penn makes it easy for us to accept that Ray’s first and only love is music.

Good news for Jazz lovers, bad news for Hattie, who falls for Ray so hard that you believe her love for him is enough to make her speak for the first time since childhood. British actress Samantha Morton is remarkably tender and delicate as Hattie. It’s a demanding role that requires so much more than acting. It requires that the actress be in touch with the character’s very heart and soul, and it is obvious Morton possesses both qualities.

The relationship between Ray and Hattie reminded me of the romance that blossoms between Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl in “Lime Lights.” True love knows no bounds, but unfortunately for Ray, true love is always just out of reach.

His idea of romance is taking a date to the dump to shoot rats. As Ray’s popularity grows, so does his cash flow, yet money can’t buy what Ray really needs. He has the love and adoration of fans, yet can’t invest the same passion he has for playing the guitar into his relationships. It becomes obvious that Ray is afraid of things he can’t manipulate or control.

Allen does a remarkable job of creating time and place, but it is his ability to create fascinating characters and distinguished dialogue that makes “Sweet and Lowdown” such a pleasure. Allen’s landscape is dotted with memorable supporting characters who lend credence to Ray’s existence, especially Uma Thurman as the woman he eventually marries, only to learn that she is about as loyal as he is.

If the purpose of a film is to take us places we’ve never been before and introduce us to characters we have never met, “Sweet and Lowdown” more than fits the bill. Allen is more than a tour guide, he’s a storyteller whose passion is evident in ever frame.



Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Gretchen Mol in a film directed by Woody Allen. 96 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


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