Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown
By biconews On 8 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Elizabeth N. Saidel

Woody Allen’s new movie Sweet and Lowdown starts with a shot of - surprise, surprise - none other than Woody himself. The classically neurotic and often narcissistic director and writer of this film has yet again found a way to include himself on the screen in his study of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), the “second best jazz guitarist of all time.”

Allen opens the film by taking the position of an interviewer and asks the question. “Why Emmet Ray?” He and other musical authorities then proceed to tell stories about the guitarist, who we soon learn has a past that has not been well documented. Through the technique of mixing documentary-esque interviews with his own narrative, Allen provides for his story a facade of historical authenticity.

His passion for music (himself being a jazz devotee and playing clarinet in his own New York band) and the people who love it is what is most powerful about Sweet and Lowdown. It is the jazz that draws people to Ray, and it is the music that urges the scenes forward and therefore draws the viewer into the film.

The film tracks Ray across the country as he plays his music and meets women, most importantly Hattie (Samantha Morton) and Blanche (Uma Thurman). Ray’s drive to perform causes him to blindly follow his guitar, often leaving him either broke or alone. But, with guitar in hand, he self-righteously presses on, telling himself that he only needs his music, for he is, after all, “the second best jazz guitarist.”

While Ray has an adult ego to match Allen’s, we get a first glimpse at his childish fragility when we are told that he will faint when he is in the presence of Django Reinhardt - the Number One Guitarist. He is shown to have another weakness when it comes to his feelings, for Ray is a protagonist of the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” kind of man Allen has presented in earlier films as well. Allen suggests that this approach to life and love is a defense against experiencing feelings hidden within, and watching Ray, we all know that this will be his Achilles’ heel both in terms of his life and his music. And, as in most Allen films, it will of course be a young, beautiful woman who finally does reach the true Ray.

In the case of Sweet and Lowdown though, Allen’s predictable formula works. It is hard to take it seriously when the first girlfriend we are introduced to literally tells Ray that he protects himself, and that if he learned to truly love, his music would improve. Allen is embracing the theory that genius cannot fully live in solitude and needs love, specifically the fully reciprocated love of a woman, in order to manifest itself in life. As the film progresses, largely through Sean Penn’s and Samantha Morton’s performances, we are made to believe that these words are true. The music cannot sustain Ray forever.

Hattie, the woman who eventually reaches Ray, is mute, and for once Ray can talk to someone who will listen. It is music, though, which really brings the two together. The language between them is a mixture of jazz, Ray’s jabbering, and insults and silence. Morton plays her role with

child-like innocence in contrast to Penn’s manic motions. They are an unlikely pair, thus rendering their connection through music that much more powerful. Allen shows that conversation is not the only way to communicate and love.

The film loses a bit of its force when Ray’s stupidity and arrogance fools him into believing that he is not in love and can move on. He finds excitement in Thurman’s Blanche, a well-dressed woman drawn to Ray for his “extreme” nature. His marriage to Blanche is doomed from the start because it lacks what his relationship with Hattie had: that is, a genuine respect for the music. After knowing true love with Hattie, Ray finally has learned a lesson: he cannot enjoy his music alone.

It is the music that is at the heart of Sweet and Lowdown, and where Allen’s passion is. The Depression era sets glow dusky red and provide an atmosphere that melds with the jazz. And in the center is Penn’s Ray, a man who feels the music so intensely that his entire body moves as he plays. As Allen’s camera traces everything from the expression on Ray’s face down to the motions of his hands over the instrument, the audience can feel the connection of a man to his music. In the end, though, Allen has shown us that one person’s passion cannot he fully realized until he shares it.

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