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Tracking Shot: Sean Penn and Uma Thurman meet on the rails in 'Sweet and Lowdown'

Lowdown Nostalgia

Worried that his audience has turned away from him, Woody Allen draws a heavy moral about an artist's behavior in 'Sweet and Lowdown'

By Richard von Busack

WOODY ALLEN'S newest film, Sweet and Lowdown, is the story of a genius musician who all but disappears after a few important recordings. Allen tries to show us some Dennis Potter-style irony by counterpointing the sweet music of imaginary 1920s guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) with his lowdown behavior, but there is no real tension in the film; the music is relaxing instead of stimulating. Films like this get championed by critics precisely because they don't challenge an audience--they're tranquilizers.

I can't cozy up to Sweet and Lowdown just for the sake of nostalgia: neither my own nostalgia for Allen's better films nor for the nostalgia he conjures up so well with the aid of his production designer Santo Loquasto and his first-rate cinematographer Zhao Fei.

Chinese cinematographer Fei isn't another disciple of Gordon Willis when it comes to recreating the past. His images aren't those of tinted photographs. He uses instead a fresh yet mellow light, like that of a humid summer morning.

This isn't an extravagant film, but it looks rich. The few locations (a lakeside resort, an Eagles Hall in the Hudson Valley of New York and a few forgivably familiar sets at the Astoria Studios on Long Island, used in Allen's Radio Days) sketch out an idealized past that appears young. Throughout the film, I kept wishing I could elbow aside the cast and just head back into the frame.

A one-note performance is fatal in an actor playing a musician. Penn, with a big cloud of hair, a waxed mustache and a rasping accent, plays Ray as a gifted strummer but a rotten human being. His idea of a good time is shooting rats at the dump. The best joke in the film comes during a postcoital conversation when a woman asks Ray what he thinks about when he's playing music; he answers, "Sometimes I think I'm not getting paid enough." He's a kleptomaniac who drinks to excess, but his real flaw, as Allen sees it, is ingratitude toward the woman in his life.

Ray's wealthy, snooty, intellectualizing wife, Blanche (Uma Thurman), is togged out as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo. She's a phony, a gesticulator, armed with breezy notions of being a writer. It's the same for Thurman as it is for Penn: here's a joke performance without a punch line.

Samantha Morton co-stars as Hattie, the musician's longtime mistress. She's a mute laundress who accepts Ray, well ... mutely. Morton's performance is heavily modeled on Giulietta Masina's in Fellini's La Strada, which was also a picture about a rotten, self-centered performer who dragged around a waif. With Masina, however, there is never any doubt about her sexual maturity.

Years later, in another Fellini film, when Masina plays Cabiria the prostitute, it is apparent that here is a woman for sale, not a child. In La Strada, the story of wasted love is sadder because there is a good, kind man waiting for Masina's waif: Richard Basehart (a sterling utility actor unjustly maligned on TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000).

But in Sweet and Lowdown, there's never any temptation for Hattie; she follows Ray trustingly, like a dog. The romance is almost unnatural. Morton, tiny and thin, is hidden in smocks, pinafores and floppy hats, and is always seen messily feeding on ice cream sundaes and pastries like a kindergartner.

You'd never remember that Morton was the star of Under the Skin, a British movie about a sexual adventuress. Her Hattie never demonstrates any real resistance to Ray's blustering and boasting; her little-girl biddability seems to be what attracts Ray more than anything else. Her character is Allen's current idea of a dream girl--a mute child who can't talk back.

For this film, Allen is returning to something that he enjoys honestly, the music of the 1920s. He loves the music and the clothes and the scenery, but the people--other than the goody-good Hattie--don't hold any attraction for him.

Some of the great musicians of the rowdiest and most disreputable era of jazz may have been swine. Still, part of their anger and self-destruction resulted from the fact that they were artists in the margin and they knew it. Competition was fierce, and the record companies didn't cosset them.

Ray doesn't have that mistreatment as a justification for his misbehavior. Even the gangster club owners in this film indulge him as a genius. Only a few sequences in Sweet and Lowdown show the cunning that would keep a musician like Ray alive, as in a scene in which the guitarist snakes the first prize at a rural talent show by disguising himself as a hayseed. This scene allows Allen back into familiar, safe territory from Broadway Danny Rose: the montage of amateur-hour talents auditioning.

Usually, however, Ray is his own stooge. One laborious physical joke about a prop wooden moon that doesn't work has been seen excerpted on TV and in previews; at full length, it doesn't have any more snap to it.

The source for Sweet and Lowdown is the music of Django Reinhardt, the phenomenal Gypsy/French guitarist, who was--it's a shock to realize as you listen to his phenomenal playing--missing a couple of fingers because of a childhood accident. Ray worships Reinhardt, and there's a running joke about him keeling over in a faint whenever he encounters him. This joke is an anachronism, because most of Reinhardt's best recordings are from the 1930s; and he wasn't well known in America in the 1920s. The way Ray talks it's as if Reinhardt is already wandering around France with the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole.

Reinhardt's racy music fills the soundtrack, along with some other gems of the time, including the percussive cover version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" by Bunny Berrigan. But although the soundtrack revives some, if not that much, of the lowdown hot jazz of the '20s, the original period-style music by guitarists Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli recalls the sweet, gravy-rich strings of Les Paul in the '50s. The heavily underscored moral of the story is "be kind to those who love you, lest you be destroyed," and that's worthy of '50s-era cinema, too.

AS PRAISED AS this film has been, especially in New York, Sweet and Lowdown just seems like a minor, obvious work from a man who constructed the most reliable and beloved date movies of the 1970s. We're accustomed to a new Woody Allen movie a year, sometimes two, and it's hard to imagine a time when the tap will be turned off, as it must be some day.

How radical he seemed in his heyday: all of his films in which the race was not to the swift and which losers triumphed in love. I wonder if anyone can imagine what it was like, in those days before Seinfeld and Cobain, to see, for the first time, a man on screen voice his own terrors of inadequacy and have them sound comic. This unlikely man, shrimpy and slight, was made attractive because of his honesty about his feelings.

Since Allen used some of the most beautiful actresses of his age as the leads in his comedies--Diane Keaton, Charlotte Rampling--women, too, showed off their fretful, neurotic side. In the darkness, couples could watch, seeing some of their worst habits--their backbiting, their fearfulness, even their promiscuity--treated affectionately.

Since the scandal, Allen's movies have been, on the whole, bitter and patronizing, and if I prefer Deconstructing Henry to all of them, it's because at least it is honestly bitter and patronizing, as opposed to The Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets Over Broadway and Celebrity. These other films offer sourness jacketed in artificial sweetness, and they seem like the work of a man who feels that his audience turned on him and he's been scheming how to get it back.

He may have succeeded in Sweet and Lowdown. The film's music and scenery merely serve to cover the essential judgmental quality: the obviousness of Ray's bastardry, the strong blocky moral about a musician having to pay the piper.


Sweet and Lowdown (R; 95 min.), directed by written by Woody Allen, photographed by Zhao Fei and starring Sean Penn, Uma Thurman and Samantha Morton, plays at the Los Gatos Cinema and Palo Alto Square.

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From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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