‘Sweet and Lowdown’ Review: The Best Guitar Player in the World
While most of this month's films have been centered around “traditional mockumentaries” (if such a standard exists) that revolve around a documentary crew filming events in real time and interviewing the people involved, Sweet and Lowdown is a pleasantly different entry into the genre. Filmed in the same vein as other famous docudramas, the film combines the dramatic biopic style of Goodfellas and the interview sit-downs with industry experts of traditional documentaries. Director Woody Allen and actual jazz historians give historical recounts about the life of the film’s protagonist and fictional guitarist Emmet Ray portrayed by Sean Penn.
In the movie, we find Emmet is a moderately successful jazz guitarist playing clubs and hotels for a living. Regularly the audience is told by Ray himself that he’s the best guitarist in the world – except for this one gypsy in France; the exceptionally talented Django Reinhardt. Ray’s two encounters with the jazz legend resulted both times in him passing out. Allen and the others state that Reinhardt had a level of emotion and playing expertise that Ray just simply couldn’t reach for one reason or another. Something Ray – a drunk, womanizer and on-the-side pimp – never really figured either.
Allen paints Ray as a magician on the guitar, his self-destructive tendencies make him irritable and damage any relationships he has; but when he gets on stage the room goes silent, his fingers dance across the frets and conjure musical ambrosia. On a life path littered with recklessness and poor choices, the only thing that stays intact is his level of playing. He’s called a genius by many, women lust after him but time and time again he avoids commitment; he bottles his feelings and drinks away any signs of real emotion. In some convoluted attempt to prove his dedication to his music, he decides that a “real artist” shouldn’t let his feelings get in the way of his craft.
That is until he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton). A mute girl he gets stuck on a date with while picking up girls with his drummer on the boardwalk, Ray’s garrulous tendencies prevent him from finding out she’s a mute until long after they’ve been on the date. Despite the irony, he finds himself was drawn to her and for months they stay together. Hattie is a pool of unconditional love, supporting Ray even when he’s unfaithful, a trait Ray takes for granted time and time again. Eventually, he leaves her out of the blue and falls for a debutante writer. She’s the pinnacle of beauty and elegance yet her attraction to Ray is less about his status as a musician but more about his reluctance to feel. She picks his brain, writing about his personality and aversion to love and commitment. He, once again, cannot fathom why any artist should need to enjoy anything other than their craft.
The only valid justification for why this film should be considered an excellent mockumentary is that everything that’s described by Allen and his jazz experts feels like a real cornerstone in jazz history. A man struggling with identity and where his feelings should indeed lie, a guitarist constantly under the shadow of his idol. Emmet Ray feels like a real person who, like many others, realized too late in his life that love wasn’t going to stop him from being great. Allen’s film is more a message to all those who say “artists are free spirits” as a declaration of being noncommittal than a mockumentary on music. Perhaps it's high time that people realize art is not merely a reflection of life, not a perfect version of it, not cause for some artificial dichotomy; it is life.
A novel approach to mockumentary making and a different entry in the genre of movies on music, Sweet and Lowdown progresses with the trademark Woody Allen pace but carries a unique style of self-reflection. Worth watching simply to see Samantha Morton communicate with effortless grace in the style of early silent films and a passionate performance by Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown is a movie for guitarists, musicians and artists of every kind.