Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
"Low Down" is a very good jazz movie and a very good heroin movie, if indeed there's much practical difference between the two modes—and perhaps there isn't. From "The Man with the Golden Arm" through "Bird" and "Mo Better Blues," jazz has often been portrayed as a lifestyle that's bound up in addiction to heroin, gambling, sex, cocaine, alcohol, or some mix. When you watch films about the music and the people who perform it, you may start to wonder if jazz itself is an addictive pursuit: music as metaphor. There hasn't been much of a commercial percentage in playing jazz for many decades, at least not compared to hip-hop, rock, country or bubblegum pop (which are their own kinds of crap shoots, of course). Even in the 1950s—when jazz became more exploratory art than danceable entertainment, yet still spawned commercial hits like Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" and become a signifier of sophistication (see Hefner, Hugh)—it filled what seemed, compared to other pop forms, like a niche market. So why play jazz ? For art's sake. For pleasure. For the rush.
It sure seems as though Joe Albany (John Hawkes), the real-life
pianist and heroin addict at the center of "Low Down," plays jazz and
shoots dope for all those reasons; well, those reasons, and the fact that
he's a junkie hanging with other junkies, which isn't a situation that
lends itself to sobriety. Directed by cinematographer Jeff Preiss, a
jazz fan who shot the 1990 Chet Baker documentary "Let's Get Lost," the
film is based on a memoir by Joe's daughter Amy (Elle Fanning), and
unfolds mostly through her eyes, circa 1975 or so. They share a small
apartment in downtown Los Angeles, in a building full of prostitutes and
junkies. "I can't keep myself straight here," Joe confesses in a moment of clarity.
But Amy adores her dad and respects his artistry, and because she's lived her whole life in his chaotic world, she doesn't see her situation as dire. It's just her situation, and as long as dad's around, it's fine. The film's carefully maintained point-of-view explains why this objectively bleak tale feels mostly warm and gentle. I like to think that's why Priess shot "Low Down" in soft, grainy 16mm, favoring brown and russet and gold and creamy-white: we're seeing this world as Amy sees it, through hopeful, loving eyes.
There's plenty to love about Joe, but Amy's hope is misplaced, and in time she'll figure it out. I've described "Low Down" as a jazz movie and an addiction movie, but both are folded into a coming-of-age film. It's about a young woman who's becoming a grownup and realizing that her father is an adult, too, but one whose lifestyle (as an artist as well as a junkie) gave him license to never grow up, at least not in the way that "square" parents must.