Low Down: Sundance Review

"Low Down"
An atmospheric but undramatic wallow in the '70s L.A. jazz-and-drugs lifestyle.

This first feature from longtime experimental filmmaker and cinematographer Jeff Preiss gets major boosts from a first-rate cast led by John Hawkes and Elle Fanning.

An immersion in the crippling drugs-and-jazz lifestyle in the dregs of 1970s Hollywood, rather than a strongly shaped drama, Low Down pungently and, at its best, gently evokes a very down period in the life of jazz pianist Joe Albany. This first feature from longtime experimental filmmaker and cinematographer Jeff Preiss places great hope in the notion that mere observation will be enough, and he does get major boosts from a first-rate cast led by John Hawkes and Elle Fanning. But as the wages of addiction are awfully familiar, as well as sadly tedious to watch, there is little new the film has to say on the subject, leaving this obvious labor of love with a real struggle ahead to find much of an audience.

There's a good reason Albany is not especially well-known; unlike other jazz greats who had drug problems, including some he played with like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Albany was on the losing end of a battle with heroin for much of his life. A pianist of great dexterity and delicacy, he made only one album of his own and his name never became a major draw. A documentary, Joe Albany: A Jazz Life, came out in 1980, three years before he died at 63.

Preiss' film is told from the point of view of his daughter, Amy-Jo Albany, whose memoir of her rocky upbringing was published in 2002. Her story is one of true sweet sadness; sweet because of the abundant love and emotion seen as existing between father and daughter, and sad because living meal-to-meal in a Hollywood flophouse with derelicts all around is no way to raise a child.

Because, as Amy-Jo says, she loved her dad "out of all proportion," as a 13-year-old she remains cheery and optimistic as she watches horror movies with her father or goes out to a Chinese restaurant when he's got the scratch, even if she has to sleep in the bathtub or on a table in their miserable room.

Preiss, who among other things shot Bruce Weber's ‘80s documentaries Broken Noses and Let's Get Lost, has carefully fashioned a very evocative look here working in Super 16 with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring), a dingy one favoring an extensive palette of grungy browns and tans in which blown windows and lights leave faces and other foreground objects in darkness and shadows. Specifically, the camera style strongly echoes Conrad Hall's extraordinary work on John Huston's Fat City, with one shot of daylight pouring into a forlorn bar almost precisely duplicating one from the 1972 film.

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The script by Topper Lilien and Albany, however, is frustratingly amorphous, with little sense of dramatic molding or pacing. Too often, you feel like you're just hanging with the characters as they face another purposeless day and, in Joe Albany's case, to see if he an make it through without sneaking off for another score.

As sympathetically represented by Hawkes, Joe is a nice, kind-hearted guy, especially where his daughter is concerned. Unfortunately, he's not always there for her and her support system is tenuous at best; Mom (Lena Headey, potent) is a hopeless, mean-spirited lush, so in a pinch Amy-Jo has to stay with Joe's mother Gram (Glenn Close, fearsomely good), rather a tough customer herself who, one might think, could take the teenager in hand more responsibly than she does.

Amy-Jo goes to school sometimes, loves listening to her dad play, which he does beautifully, and can spot shady characters and dealers a mile away. Her hopes for life and goodwill towards her father appear infinite, which only makes his neglect for her welfare all the more heartbreaking. He breaks parole and is thrown back in the joint for a while, must endure a review period and complains that, "Here, nobody seems to care about the music," which begs the question of why they don't head for greener pastures somewhere else.

Indeed, at one point Joe leaves his daughter behind and disappears to Europe for two years, only to be deported for drugs and have his passport revoked, another careless move in a life seemingly full of them. Unfortunately, the film never begins to reveal what's really going on inside Joe Albany; sure, it's told from his daughter's perspective, but across two hours we're never let in on what music truly means to him or even how he feels about what he's done with his life. Mostly, it seems like he's evading any genuine responsibility, for his daughter, from whom he tries to shield the worst of his behavior, or for himself. The priorities are drugs, first and foremost, music, then everything else. The fabric of his life is evocatively represented, but very little of the man, whose drug addiction gets the better of him most of the time.

At a certain point, Amy-Jo finds a first boyfriend, Cole (Caleb Landry Jones), a drummer and an epileptic with his own raft of problems. Peter Dinklage is in briefly as a courtly fellow who literally lives in a hole in the wall of the stinking building.

The music, as far as it goes, sounds terrific. If there were only more of that than of the drugs—onscreen as well as in life.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Bona Fide, Epic Films
Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter
Dinklage, Flea, Caleb Landry Jones, Tim Daly, Taryn Manning, Billy
Drago, River Ross
Director: Jeff Preiss
Screenwriters: Topper Lilien, Amy-Jo Albany, based on the memoir "Low
Down: Jazz Junk and Other Fairy Tails from Childhood" by Amy-Jo Albany
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Mindy Goldberg
Executive producers: Burton Ritchie, Daniel-Konrad Cooper, Win
McCormack, Amy-Jo Albany, Flea, Anthony Kiedis
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Michael Saia
Music: Ohad Talmor
119 minutes