|Woody Allen: ¿Ídolo o Forro?|
December 3, 1999
Sweet and Lowdown" is an appealingly personal film for Woody Allen, and not in any tired sense of what personal means. It celebrates the kind of vintage 1930s jazz that has tootled through the soundtrack of many a previous Allen film, and that finally has the chance to occupy center stage. In "Sweet and Lowdown," the spotlight shines on a traveling musician who is as impossible as he is talented, embodying the jaunty yet soulful spirit of the music he plays. The film doesn't have much more of a guiding idea than a favorite jazz-lover's notion: that it would have been great to step back into this rollicking phase of jazz history and find out what the near-greats were like.
So the film invents Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) and describes him with its title: a pimp and kleptomaniac, perhaps, but also a guitarist who can play music of the spheres. (The guitarist Django Reinhardt is Emmet's inspiration and hero, insofar as Emmet has met him twice and fainted both times.) And as for sweet, Emmet is prone to remarks like: "I'm an artist. I like women but they gotta have their place." Other films of Allen's have echoed that idea, but this one has the history of quite a few itinerant jazzmen to back it up.
Emmet embodies attributes of various real musicians, as well as Allen's favorite mixture of the self-deprecating and the grandiose. He is best defined here by the sequence that has him demanding a giant crescent moon as a prop for his nightclub show, then getting too drunk to sit on it without falling off. His hubris provides some of the film's better moments, as do first-hand displays of the kind of selfishness that goes with this territory. Confronted by a big new car that he can't afford but wants to buy, Emmet suggests that his girlfriend Hattie (Samantha Morton) give up dessert.
While Penn makes Emmet a colorfully outrageous creation, the character himself isn't writ large enough to occupy the whole film. And Allen's tone is too genial, despite the character's obvious dark side, to allow Emmet much weight. So the film, shot in inviting, evocative style by the Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, wanders freely among its supporting characters, with Ms. Morton as its most touching: a waif of a laundress who sounds like a star-crossed silent-film heroine and who indeed plays her role without speaking. Ms. Morton does this astonishingly well, mixing the baleful loneliness of Buster Keaton with a Harpo Marx sweetness. She gives the film's most affecting performance without benefit of music or voice.
While her long-suffering Hattie clings unreasonably to Emmet (who considers sending her to a vet instead of a doctor as another money-saving ploy), Uma Thurman also swans through the film as another amusing period character, the chattering socialite with a penchant for artistic men. ("Such is the ego of genius," she notes to herself about Emmet. "Must get used to it.") And Anthony LaPaglia turns up as a gangster, the sine qua non of this era. But despite the actors' capable contributions (not least of them Penn's newly acquired guitar proficiency), the film's real star is its music.
So at happily regular intervals, "Sweet and Lowdown" pauses to enjoy such seductive standards as "Sweet Sue," "All of Me," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I'll See You in My Dreams." There are also show-stopping renditions of Reinhardt's music and newer versions from Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, with musical supervision by Dick Hyman and obvious enthusiasm from one and all. This is one very tuneful labor of love.
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