|Sweet and Lowdown: Silent Fizzle|
Using the documentary verite style, the movie intersperses live interviews with jazz historians such as Nat Hentoff and Allen himself with the story. Each interview concerns itself with the legendary exploits of Emmet Ray, often billed as the world's greatest guitar player. As each interview finishes, we find ourselves thrust into the Depression-era boardwalks and saloons of the East Coast, where Emmet Ray plies his trade as an itinerant musician, gambler, and drunk.
In a virtuoso performance, Sean Penn plays Ray as an extremely vain but dim narcissist who also happens to play some of the best guitar this side of Django Reinhardt, the French gypsy guitar immortal. With just a few quick strokes, Penn captures his character's incredible egotism and idiocy in the same shot.
Woody Allen plays up Ray's obsession with Reinhardt to the point of slapstick. Ray cannot hear Django's name without almost fainting. Consider it a poor man's version of the Mozart/Salieri rivalry where one man's jealousy of another man's genius haunts him forever.
But whatever else Emmet Ray embodies, no one can deny his musical mastery. Saloonkeepers literally weep at the delicate sounds that pour from his magical fingers, just as women flock to his talent and to his bed. This sets the scene for Samantha Morton to enter the picture as Hattie, a mute woman who falls in love with Ray. In her scenes with Ray, her silence makes his vanity loom even larger.
The bond between Penn and Morton serves as the crux of the movie. At times Morton's expressive face echoes the great pathos of silent movie comedians. Think of Buster Keaton's broad grin etched below his sad, knowing eyes. Not able to communicate verbally, Morton uses her eyes to show both love and betrayal at the hands of Emmet Ray. Ray's inability to love anyone but himself becomes clearer to us with every scene. And, of course, his hubris eventually catches up with him.
Despite a number of charming moments, the movie feels like Allen set out to mimic the tones and rhythms of silent movies. This works for the first hour or so, but then you want Allen to do more to transcend the genre and make it original. Penn does his best here, going against the grain of his earlier work to turn in a calibrated performance of a naive, self-destructive man. But by the movie's end, we can't help but feel shortchanged by the early promise of Sweet and Lowdown.
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Having just viewed the video of Sweet and Lowdown, although it is now a three-year old movie, I believe it is only now timely. Like many ordinary viewers, I only recently discovered the fabulous music of the great Django Reinhardt. While few average viewers had heard of Django in 1999, most musicians had, and virtually all contemporary guitarists acknowledge his influence on them.
The movie "fizzled" at theaters because it was simply ahead of its time. What a joy now to see Woodie Allen's own confidence in his appreciation of the forgotten talent and music of Django. I also was impressed by his understanding of the complexity of the character of Django as somewhat mirrored in the caricature of Emmett Ray.
There is now a resurgence of interest by the general public in swing, "gypsy jazz," and Django, himself, as evidenced by the 50th annual jazzfest in his memory in France the last week in June 2002. Moreover, one can now find many new music groups in the style of the "Quintet of the Hot Club of France" (featuring Django and the incredible violin music of Stephane Grappelli).
I predict the recent, renewed interest in these musicians and their music will foster continuing popularity -possibly even cult status -- of this movie for a long time to come.
A jewel of a movie that any "wanna be" musician with more than a pinch of talent can totally identify with. Every player has their main mentor. Emmet Ray's reduction to incoherent panic in the (believed) presence of the Belgian guitar virtuoso is totally plausible as Django (still unsurpassed in real life) would have nuances that Emmet knew he could never emulate.
With Woody Allen's own musical abilities, I would take a bet that he too knows the frustration of being unable to extend his own upper limits, and to some extent I suspect the movie is a biographical metaphor.
Nor is precocious ability with otherwise low intellect a rarity in the world of music, and Sean Penn brilliantly portrays this, shining in the company of mute Samantha Morton, and eclipsed by intellectual Uma Thurman.
My only criticism would be the interspersed talking to camera of Nat Hentoff and Woody Allen. It may be a convenient way to join up disparate parts of the plot, but it wrecked the flow and prevented the viewer from totally luxuriating in this beautiful fiction.
Hi! Not many viewers today have heard of Django. Some viewers might have gotten lost. Wish there was some way more information was shown about Django. This would have given the viewer something to go on. I never went along with this "world's greatest" stuff. In this case, there are many great guitarists. How does one measure and is there only one great guitar player?
I just finished watching Sweet and Lowdown with Sean Penn as Emmet Ray. The movie was special to me as I know a guitar player who should be considered the greatest in the world.
My opinion of the movie is that I thought it captured the essence of Emmet Ray, his true inner self, even though he went to such great lengths to hide most of himself. Woody Allen achieved what he set out to do -- present to us Emmet Ray, the guitarist, the lost child, the scared man, the egotist full of insecurity (an odd but often found combination in people) -- and in general he gave the viewer a very in-depth portrayal of Emmet Ray.
Sweet and Lowdown is a great movie.
I was almost in tears as the crescent moon came down. That is movie slapstick at its best because it was so credible.
I have never seen Sean Penn perform so convincingly. It wasn't until my wife told me who was playing the lead that I realized it was him. Surely that is the mark of a great performance.
His co-star Samantha Morton put in a great performance.
I loved the movie. The only thing that seemed a little weak was the arrival of the counterfeit money and the scenes involving following the wife and her lover.
Otherwise, I loved what I saw.