Sometimes, things just line up. In the past two weeks, I have watched three movies dealing with jazz music and musicians, and all three have found different, if not cliché approaches to explore the artistic expression of the genre.
First was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a grueling ordeal about a student/mentor relationship and the relentless pursuit of perfection. Following that was Keep On Keepin’ On, a documentary from Alan Hicks about Terry Clark and his protégé, Justin Kauflin. In direct contrast to Whiplash, Terry was not only one of the most prolific jazz trumpeters he was also the happiest. A narrative and a documentary set the stage beautifully for the final film in my makeshift trifecta, Low Down a narrative based on a memoir about a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist who can’t get clean of smack, try as he might. If those three tropes don’t cover the wide range of jazz impressions, I don’t know what does.
Set in Hollywood in 1974, Joe Albany is played by the always-impressive John Hawkes. Joe is a gifted pianist who never quite caught a break that he didn’t sabotage. Even though he played (once) with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Joe never found a way to spin his talent into a career. Mainly because he was addicted to heroin and couldn’t separate himself from the drug or the friends he ran with that were hopelessly addicted as well.
Joe and Sheila (Lena Headey) had a child, Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) and even though neither is cutout to be a parent, Joe is actually better equipped as Sheila is an alcoholic in worse shape than Joe. Low Down picks up with Amy in her teenage years and Joe’s mother (Glenn Close) swooping in to save them both. In another amazing performance (in a movie loaded with excellent performances), Close shows fearlessness when it comes to abandoning good looks and embracing the age her character. She’s a tough, no-nonsense woman who has watched her son slip into a violent drug addiction and carries that pain with her everywhere she goes.
Low Down is based on Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood, but the movie is not confined to Amy’s perspective. There is one length side story where Amy starts dating Cole (Caleb Landry Jones) — a young drummer who suffers from epilepsy — but it doesn’t add much to the story. The movie remains at it’s strongest when it focuses on the family dynamics between Amy, Joe, Gram and Sheila and the cruel and crippling effects of addiction. These two dynamics come together in one excruciating scene between Amy and her mother, who she finds drunk as a skunk in the middle of the afternoon.
Director Jeff Preiss has made his bones as a documentary cinematographer, and it shows with his first feature film. With the help from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (who won an award for Low Down at this past Sundance Film Fest), Preiss loads the frame with lush, dusty images of sunlight streaming through cigarette smoke.
I am unfamiliar with Preiss’s work, and do not know what attracted him to Albany’s memoir or this particular subject matter, but he succeeds never the less. Low Down is filled with excellent performers giving excellent performances (even a walk on role from Peter Dinklage doesn’t strike a wrong note), excellent images and excellent music. Jazz isn’t just a style, it’s a musical mood and Low Down gets right in there.