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"Sweet and Low Down"
We're happy to see Woody Allen taking a minor role in his movie. Nevertheless, this is very much one of his own, on a subject near and dear to his heart and to his chosen activities. He has his own jazz group in Manhattan.
Set in the 30's, the conceit of the film is a fabricated jazz musician who plays in the style of the legendary guitarist, Django Reinhardt and is a self-professed genius on the instrument in his own right. The music he plays convinces us of his talent while his personal traits are nothing if not intense sleaze. "Lowdown", indeed. He's a drunk, a pimp, a womanizer, kleptomaniac thief and poet of the guitar.
But don't be taken in by the quasi-documentary nature of the presentation, what with "witnesses" to the existence of the purely fictional Emmet Ray. They'll have you believing totally in this new "legend" whose full story is immersed in mystery and folklore but is being told here for the first and only time.
But taken as the fictional piece that it is, it's quite charming. Penn, in an academy nomination performance, takes on a new kind of role for him, and he mostly succeeds in a stylized, eccentric, semi comedic recreation of his character. Outstanding is his fingering of the guitar to pre-recorded music. Penn has us believing he's really plucking the strings we're hearing.
The best news, as far as performances, however, is Samantha Morton's mute girlfriend, Hattie, a role that has garnered her an academy award nomination. She is very much a part of the "sweet" in the title.
Of all the jazz greats that Allen might have chosen to revolve a story around, Django Reinhardt and his Hot Club of France, was a great choice. Reinhardt's music is complex and comprehensible, full of brilliant invention and spontaneity. A French gypsy, Reinhardt played with only 3 fingers on his right hand. If you aren't sure you like jazz, see this movie just to be exposed to his sound! Your next trip might be to the record store.
Happily, this is a film that deserves to be seen purely as an entertainment. It may not go down in the history books, but while it's around it's a good evening's activity.