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Music Movie Mondays: A “free agent” gets Sweet and Lowdown

August 9, 2010

Last Saturday, I had a conversation with my friend Karin about Woody Allen. She wondered if I liked the oeuvre of the prolific director/writer/”actor”. Having watched 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown earlier that day, his work was fresh in my mind. The answer I gave her was that I wasn’t sure if I could give a decisive answer given what little I’ve seen, but I couldn’t call myself a fan. I haven’t liked any of his recent output. I slogged through Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona despite critics’ raves. Hollywood Ending made me want to burn my eyes or the television I watched it on. I liked Annie Hall and Radio Days. I also enjoy some of his early writing, particularly high school oral interp mainstay “The Whore of Mensa,” which focuses on a gumshoe who uncovers a prostitution ring where johns pursue intellectual congress with exceptionally bright call girls.

Though I do find the idea of a fictional music biopic interesting, and worth considering for this series following last week’s post on Velvet Goldmine, I bristled at the considerable potential for authorial indulgence. Haynes’s detractors could probably assuage similar claims against his faux-Bowie biopic, but it didn’t bother me near as much as Allen’s display here. Hailing the documentary to tell the story of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, a Depression era virtuoso haunted by the spectre of Django Reinhardt, declarative aficionado Allen positions himself as an authority from the beginning by lining himself up with male experts like historian Nat Hentoff and deejay Ben Duncan (one of the few black men in the entire movie) to tell Ray’s tale. Though I haven’t seen Federico Fellini’s La Strada, on which Allen loosely based Sweet and Lowdown, I have a feeling I’d be left with a similar reaction.

Given what I do know of Allen’s filmography, I can say this: his movies can sometimes be funny, but they always feel small, airless, and full of outdated ideas. I don’t know how his work keeps getting nominated for Oscars, apart from the Academy tending to favor small, airless, outdated offerings from old white men.

Speaking of old white men, Ray (Sean Penn) reminded me of King of the Hill‘s Cotton Hill. A mean cuss of a patriarch, Hill looms over his first-born, protagonist Hank. Though considerably younger, Ray is a withered ghost of a man. For all of his bluster, he is self-loathing and uncertain of his gifts. While he may dismiss Reinhardt as some “gypsy” in France, he is unable to perform before him or even witness the guitarist in performance without fainting. He puffs himself up with vice and self-aggrandizing pronouncements, and berates the women he wants to love him if only to pull them under with him before abandoning them.

Penn got an Oscar nomination for his work as Ray. The award probably should have gone to either Russell Crowe for The Insider or Richard Farnsworth for The Straight Story instead of Kevin Spacey’s performance in American Beauty, though Penn does a credible job faking the guitar work and mining the pathos behind such a reprehensible character. Samantha Morton more than holds her against 1999’s Best Supporting Actress winner Angelina Jolie for her turn as Hattie, a mute woman who loves Ray but, like so many lovers before and after, is forced to move on. The less we can say about Uma Thurman’s turn as Ray’s slumming wife Blanche and how she is written, the better.

In short, Sweet and Lowdown was an interesting idea but did little to convince me of its originator’s merits.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 8:56 pm

    I’m pretty sure the last movie of his I liked was Mighty Aphrodite, in 1995, and I skipped this one, but it always sort of nagged at me about whether I should give it a try. I liked reading this, it answered the question, and now I can take it off my netflix queue!

  2. hsofia permalink
    August 9, 2010 11:00 pm

    Some of my favorite moments in cinema take place in Woody Allen movies, so I guess I could call myself a fan of his work (not of the man). I’ve seen about 16 of his movies. I thought Match Point was weirdly glossy and soulless, despite having a passionate female lead, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was ludicrously anachronistic – although Penelope Cruz was terrific in it. My problem with Sweet and Lowdown is that it felt like too little of a movie. Maybe even too little of a story, I don’t know. It was just not enough. I think Penn is an incredible actor, but that whole movie felt pointless to me.

    I think his best films are the ones that are about the people and places he knows. Even when I’m going “eww, he’s so skeevy” as he leches after some lanky young woman, I believe him when he does that. I believe that world he (re)creates.

    I didn’t believe Sweet & Lowdown. To a lesser degree, I didn’t believe Match Point, either. And the words coming out of the mouths of the two female friends in VCB almost made me angry.

  3. August 10, 2010 1:52 am

    Of course, I should have been in “Mighty Aphrodite,” because the concluding scene from the film was shot in FAO Schwarz, where I was the official store clown, and I don’t even want to go into why I wasn’t a part of the finish of that film. I did eventually meet Woody and Soon Yi on Madison Avenue in a surreal moment, as I walked home from the store in my full clown regalia. Soon Yi’s eyes lit up as I approached. The Woodman was non-plussed. I nodded to them and kept on going.

    Meanwhile, generally, Mr. Allen’s work really isn’t meant to be “enjoyed” as it is processed and seen through the kaleidoscope of his own life and foibles. The early stuff was his homage to Groucho and love of early movies, like “Play It Again Sam.” There’s a whole lot less stuff to psychoanalyze there. But then there was that whole “serious” movie era… stuff like “September” that really is a struggle to sit through.

    Most people consider “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” his masterworks. To me, the most telling was “Husbands and Wives” which, when seen through the skein of the Mia/Soon Yi issues that were occurring at almost the same time, may have made this the most transparent statement ever made by a director!

    But Woody’s films always have a couple of things in common: those standard black and white title cards and a lot of classic jazz. When it came to “Sweet & Lowdown,” I think the acclaim was for the music, the musical performances and the fact that he got such great material from Penn and Morton. It transcended the fact that there was no story there, to a degree because the character depth was so right on.

    Woody and New York were a good fit for awhile. After Mia and the court case, that was broken and he moved on to London, which may have a connection to the “Swingin’ 60s” and his start in cinema(with films like “What’s New, Pussycat” and “Casino Royale” – the Peter Sellers/David Niven version).

    The other either charming or annoying thing about a Woody film is how the script makes everyone sound like Woody! Will Ferrell, Scarlett Johansson, it really doesn’t matter… the cadence, the vocabulary, it’s all him. I know I can’t be the only one put off by that.

  4. August 10, 2010 2:38 am

    Most people consider “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” his masterworks. To me, the most telling was “Husbands and Wives” which, when seen through the skein of the Mia/Soon Yi issues that were occurring at almost the same time, may have made this the most transparent statement ever made by a director!

    Husbands and Wives and Interiors are my favorite Woody Allen films. The former for – wait for it – Sydney Pollack who is absolutely heaven and the later because, well, what the hell is Jack McCoy doing in a Woody Allen film?

    Runner ups include: Annie Hall and Manhattan Murder Mystery.

    Sweet and Lowdown is an odd duck. It tries very hard to matter, but in the end it simply doesn’t.

  5. August 10, 2010 2:42 am

    Given what I do know of Allen’s filmography, I can say this: his movies can sometimes be funny, but they always feel small, airless, and full of outdated ideas. I don’t know how his work keeps getting nominated for Oscars, apart from the Academy tending to favor small, airless, outdated offerings from old white men.

    Because the writing is flawless. It might seem small and airless, but Allen’s ability to inhabit everyday ordinary is only surpassed by Henry Jaglom and Spike Lee, both of whom, the Academy can’t stand.

    Also think within a certain sphere the themes tackled by Allen’s films are completely contemporary. From an outsider’s perspective, it explains a lot about the inner workings of affluent, educated liberal white folk in a way that makes them mad, which I suppose means it’s probably on the right track. It definitely feels authentic from my experiences with folks his films depict.

  6. August 10, 2010 7:19 am

    I saw Celebrity in the theater, where I learned that Melanie Griffith’s voice induces narcolepsy in me. I seriously fell dead asleep when her scene started, and woke up when it ended, perfectly fine for the rest of the matinee movie.

    I second Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery as favorites, along with Annie Hall, Manhattan and actually Bullets over Broadway.

    What about that Melinda movie? I only know one person who saw it, and they liked it, but I am wary of their opinion.

  7. August 10, 2010 10:32 am

    Sydney Pollack shut down Husbands and Wives. That is all.

Trackbacks

  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Sweet and Lowdown « Feminist Music Geek

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