Jazz can be vivacious and alive, but it can also get down real low. It becomes reserved, intimate, raw and wholly adult. Bebop demands a refined ear and a patient listener, and good music challenges you to listen closely and find the blues and pain within.
Low Down is a sharply jazzy, bleak and vital character drama based on the memoir of Amy-Jo Albany and her famous, piano-playing father and jazz musician Joe Albany. It’s less a music biopic and more a coming-of-age story about growing up real fast and learning to face the music all too soon.
Director Jeff Preiss sets Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) up for disappointment right out the gate, with her father (John Hawkes) being arrested for failing to stay clean from his heroin addiction and breaking his parole. She speaks in voiceover about how irrationally she loves him as he’s thrown onto the hood of a car, and in that moment she seems to get a little older.
Amy-Jo is at a curious point in her life, when she’s too young to be talked to seriously but too old to not notice the questionable and troubling things her father gets up to in their small Hollywood apartment. He brings over a buddy (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea) to play trumpet, but maybe only hangs out with him because he’s a drug dealer. He allows another heroin addict and enabler to crash at their place. And he briefly lets Amy-Jo’s falling-down alcoholic of a mother back into their life, if only because she’s so self-destructive.
Low Down is shot in a grainy, grimy, brown ‘70s filter on 16mm film, and the handheld, homemade look of the film has an observant quality that matches Amy-Jo’s soft-spoken demeanor and a volatile feel that matches Albany’s scary side. This is a movie in the dumps trying to be alive, with Albany in and out of jail and Amy-Jo discovering herself. She meets a charming dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who lives in a hovel underneath the stairs but who turns out to be a creep. She waits with her young friend as his drug-addled mother suffers a relapse. And she finds only minor stability living with her grandmother (Glenn Close).
And yet for all its dour notes, Low Down is a film that strives to be lively. The music is all Joe Albany, but John Hawkes recreates it in virtuosic fashion. His performance is always a little dangerous and on edge, and it gives Low Down a spark it would otherwise lack in the story. Fanning has a pleasant face and wonderful range as an actress, and she’s great casting for a young woman tasked with being the most mature one in the family.
What first time director Jeff Preiss is aiming at above all is how your surroundings and the people you live with can change you and keep you down in the dumps. It’s a movie very much tied to poverty-stricken conflict, and the bitter irony of watching Albany’s art suffer in Hollywood, where other people go to let it thrive, is not lost on Preiss.
The movie falters in its storytelling somewhat, like with a boyfriend who suffers seizures or in an ending that concerns prostitution and more drug use, something that even the actors can’t save. But Low Down’s low notes don’t do enough to bring down its highs.