Low Down’s story is well-worn territory. It’s a story told like a tragic confession by children and girlfriends and wives and friends and frenemies of great artists around the world: from that of Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley, artistic prominence is too often synonymous with untimely, though not unforeseen, tragedy. The infectious glow of a savant leaves many a loved one burned—mentally, emotionally, financially, physically—and though their wounds never fully heal, their scars are firsthand reminders that they lived in the wake of some of modern history’s greatest gifts.
Low Down is based on the memoir of Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of jazz pianist Joe Albany, a scene staple who played alongside such giants as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Instead of chronicling a lifespan, the film finds the young Albany, played by Elle Fanning, at 13 years old, and then continues through a two-year slice of her childhood (1974-1976) as she weathers the drug-addled whirlwind of an environment her parents have handed her. Her soft-spoken father (John Hawkes) does what he can to put on a straight-laced father face for his young daughter as he battles, with only minor success, his inner heroin hound, but, worn from the fight and worse for the wear, he provides his daughter little but a sleazy Hollywood hotel by day, a saloon for a babysitter by night, and ceaseless hope for a healthy, happy ending.
Shot on 16mm film and bearing much of the same stylistic grittiness and chic shabbiness as Inside Llewyn Davis, last year’s portrait of musician strugglehood, i>Low Down, like the music that played soundtrack to so much of Amy-Jo’s childhood, doesn’t invite beginning-to-end linear consumption or point-blank digestion. In fact, some editing decisions seem almost improvised, compulsive and anxious, like jazz riffs. Its sensuous threads weave an earnest depiction of hope, grief, love, and other drugs, but the film runs into a few structural problems when it struggles to find and maintain a direction, getting lost somewhere in a haze of its own artistic density, as if a jazz musician were suddenly asked to write a Broadway musical or a rock opera. Yell out a key and hand that man a whiskey dry, he’ll maintain for hours on improvisation and a trained ear.
In other words, Low Down thrives on its style, on a convoluted rhythm of ragtag soul, helped along by an earthy soundtrack authentic to the time and psyche. This is where the film excels. Director Jeff Preiss shapes an emblematic, well-synchronized sight and sound that hooks early and easily. Which makes sense, because Preiss is best known for his cinematography chops, notably for 1988 Academy Award nominee Let’s Get Lost, a documentary which followed the highs and comedowns of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Lost helps guide much of Priess’s overall vision for his Albany project, which not only marks his return to mainstream cinema, but stands as his directorial debut. Preiss had spent much of the ’90s directing commercials and music videos, and was approached one day by producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who had begun sowing the Low Down seeds back in 2003. And a serendipitous meeting it was, as Preiss himself was someone who had encouraged Amy-Jo to write the memoir in the first place.
The film’s centerpiece performances—save for a few outstanding looks from Fanning peppered throughout—come from Glenn Close as Grandma “Gram” Albany, channeling a Kathy Bates grit and a Maggie Smith grace, and the fabulous Caleb Landry Jones (Friday Night Lights) as Cole, Amy-Jo’s boyfriend who struggles with epilepsy. John Hawkes (The Sessions, Winter’s Bone) plays a fine Joe Albany, attentive and subtle. Hawkes also bears a striking resemblance to the real Albany, much more so than Mark Ruffalo, who was first billed to play bebop’s best-kept secret until conflicting schedules saw things differently.
Meanwhile, Game of Thrones heavy-hitters Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage fill their relatively small roles with the potent, poignant efficacy that fans of the HBO giant have come to expect. Both actors have continued to bring heightened emotional dimensions in most everything they touch, Low Down included. But when big personalities take minor roles, there’s a risk that an underdeveloped storyline or an arrested relationship will be less easily forgiven; the charged relationships both characters share with Amy-Jo are abandoned somewhat abruptly, with little explanation, which practically second-guesses their functionality in the first place. Headey is Amy-Jo’s mom, Sheila, captivating as a downward spiral made flesh, drinking herself numb to ease her sense of worthlessness from her failed singing career and her ability as a mother. She takes delight in engaging her daughter in twisted playground mind-games, attempting to bring Amy to her level of despondency. Still, with such a complicated relationship between mother and daughter available, what plays out onscreen is mired in stoicism, seemingly doing no justice to the promise underneath. Dinklage’s character, a mannerly junkie neighbor, finds a similar fate.
Low Down lacks an ambitious narrative, stuck, as its characters are, in immobility and delusion, less a vibrant product of the era the filmmakers so clearly respect, and more a seductive haze of languishing talent. Its aesthetic stengths just can’t distract from its shaky framework, and the audience is left to rely on other elements to stay engaged, elements unable to shoulder the responsibility of a sinking narrative, like Hawkes’s delicate and magnetic essence as he glides from one gig to another, from one heartbreaking disappointment to yet another. Ultimately, Low Down is an honest and intuitively stylized film with no shortage of heart, but is playing to a beat only it seems to hear.
Director: Jeff Preiss
Writer: Topper Lilien, Amy Albany
Starring: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage
Release Date: October 24, 2014