Evincing a similar mustard brown aesthetic and destitute mood—spiritually, emotionally and psychologically—Sundance indie, “Low Down” is to 1970s jazz, what John Huston’s “Fat City” is to that era of boxing: a down and out look at talented three-time losers that can’t get past their addictions, demons and terribly self-destructive qualities. But unlike Huston’s Stacy Keach pugilist drama (admittedly uneven, but still fascinating), “Low Down” is interminably depressing and features an indolent pace that would embarrass any musician looking to engage.
Set in the jazz scene of 1970s Hollywood, Elle Fanning stars as Amy-Jo Albany, the sweet-natured and neglected teenager daughter of bebop jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes). Told through Amy-Jo’s eyes, looking back at her unpleasant childhood, the movie opens up with voice-over that declares the girl’s unremitting adoration for her father. A love that is "out of all proportion,” she says. What the young, innocent adolescent doesn’t tell us—as Joe is arrested and slammed up against a car in front of her eyes—is how her disappointing father will abidingly break her heart without fail for the rest of his life. Featuring two of the worst possible parents to ever grace the screen (Lena Headey plays her awful, alcoholic mother), empathy pours out for Amy-Jo’s character, but the movie abuses that emotion by grinding away at depictions of her monstrously selfish parents and their neglectful actions.
With little prospects or hopes, Albany’s downward trajectory begins immediately; they live in a flop house, drug-dealing friends stop by with frequency, and heroin binges, financial troubles, arrests, heart of gold hookers, and worse all arrive, at the expense of the young Amy-Jo. While the chain-smoking pianist is a sweet, caring man at heart, most of the father's poor choices render this quality moot. “Low Down” also embraces the clichés of ‘70s jazz bohemia; the hepcats, the ubiquitous smack, the "far-out" reactions to impressive music and every component of that milieu you can think of. Based on co-screenwriter Amy-Jo Albany's true-life memoir (“Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood”) about her obsessive and thoughtless smack-addicted father Joe Albany, “Low Down” was never going to be a enjoyable laugh riot, but a producer (or the director) might have flagged the potential for miserablist torture (the kind that Sundance indies seem to love and capture so effectively). The film plays nary a note of reprieve and the dank aesthetic does nothing to help the mood. “Low Down” is unequivocally a downer.
Shot by terrific up-and-coming cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who learned under the tutelage of natural-light advocate Harris Savides, the DP is a wonderful emerging talent who has pushed the limits of low-light natural shooting (check out his remarkable stuff in Ry Russo-Young’s“Nobody Walks” and Sofia Coppola’s “Bling Ring”), but “Low Down” crosses a line. While period (and thematically) accurate, it doesn’t help that the oppressive mushroom browns and variously ugly relish-stain colors makes for one drab looking picture. The darkness of some scenes is borderline unwatchable.
Directed by experimental, commercial, music-video, jack-of-all-trades filmmaker, Jeff Priess, the cinematographer of the noted Chet Baker documentary "Let's Get Lost" by Bruce Weber, the first-time narrative feature director has been over this territory before (Baker was a similarly damaged artist with little tenacity other than his commitment to getting high). But unlike that aforementioned engaging jazz portrait, “Low Down” is a wallowing slog of misery.
Featuring a first-rate cast in a dour, second-rate movie, Glenn Close co-stars as Joe Albany’s enabling mother, and the film’s strong supporting cast includes Peter Dinklage, Tim Daly, Taryn Manning, Billy Drago, River Ross and Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, who plays a convincing jazz trumpeter friend (he’s also an executive producer on the picture along with RHCP’s Anthony Kiedis). But casting can’t make a difference. A subplot featuring Caleb Landry Jones as a young musician romancing Amy-Jo might have been an opportunity to alleviate the film’s pain slightly, but this digression does little to lift the film’s mood and quickly becomes just as despondent as anything in Joe’s life (why it was included, other than for the fact it actually happened, therefore feels like a total mystery). Wretchedly downcast movies such as this one usually feature some kind of triumph over adversity, but Priess' picture is just a slow-drawn portrait of deterioration.
Nearly two, tortuously hours long, movies that put audiences through these kind of downcast paces like this should probably err closer to the more tolerable 90-minute mark, but “Low Down” is relentless and doesn’t know when to say when, perhaps feeling obligated to the true-story of Albany’s life. Elle Fanning and John Hawkes are two of our finest actors and almost anything they touch turns to gold—and yes, both of them are great here—but frankly, they deserve better. “Low Down” proves that even extraordinary performances can get outplayed by the grimness of a disheartening one-note song that ends almost as hopelessly as it begins. [D+]