Striking a moody, complementary downbeat to electrifying Sundance opener “Whiplash,” “Low Down” traces two years in the life of noted jazz pianist Joe Albany, who played with the likes of Charlie Parker and Lester Young and died after a long battle with heroin addiction in 1988 at age 63. It’s a familiar story of music-world success, failure and addiction, admirably but unevenly told by first-time feature director Jeff Preiss, who certainly knows the music and the milieu, but proves less adept at shaping the material into a consistently compelling narrative. A gallery of very fine performances from John Hawkes, Elle Fanning and Glenn Close should draw deserved critical kudos, but the pic’s measured pace and unyielding depressive air put a definite damper on commercial prospects.
“Low Down” is based on the memoir of the same name by Albany’s daughter, Amy-Jo, who also co-authored the screenplay (with Topper Lilien) and who’s played in the film by the ever-impressive Fanning, heartbreaking here as a girl whose love for her father is constantly challenged by his self-destructive behavior. When the movie opens in 1974, the pre-teen Amy is living with dad in a seedy Hollywood flophouse populated by myriad addicts, artists, prostitutes and other celebrants of la vie boheme. Joe (Hawkes, who bears a strong resemblance to the real Albany) has been in and out of prison on drug charges, and is a little too laissez-faire about his regularly scheduled meetings with his parole officer. Mostly out of the picture is Amy’s mom, Sheila (Lena Headey), a one-time singer who now whiles her days away in the corner bar.
Preiss, who cut his teeth as an editor for photographer/filmmaker Bruce Weber (including on the seminal Chet Baker docu “Let’s Get Lost”) spends most of the film’s first half introducing us to Joe’s world — the two-bit pizza parlors and strip joints where he manages to rustle up gigs, the back rooms where he shoots up, and his network of similarly strung-out friends and associates (including a fellow sideman very well played by red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea). And if “Low Down” is sometimes short on dramatic drive, it’s long on Bukowskian atmosphere, aided immensely by the work of production designer Elliott Hostetter and the Super 16mm lensing of the gifted Christopher Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring”), which has the hazy, amber light of old instamatic photographs.
What you see early on in “Low Down” is pretty much what you get for the next two hours — an addict’s long, slow, steady decline, punctuated by the usual moments of intervention, false hope and relapse. But within that well-worn framework (“Bird,” “’Round Midnight”), Preiss smartly avoids many of the attendant cliches. Like the Coen brothers with their Llewyn Davis, he doesn’t labor to make Joe Albany into an exceptional case: his talent is self-evident, but never inflated to genius levels, and we see that his addiction, too, is one shared by many around him. He is, in short, an all too human, flawed, wounded man, and Hawkes brings a humility to the role that says no one understands this better than Joe himself. Joe likes to get high, he admits late in the film, and when we see the pacific calm that washes over him after he shoots up — the way his body goes slightly limp, as if he were a child back in the womb — we understand exactly why.
Around the film’s mid-point, Joe decides to skip parole and seek better fortune in Europe, leaving Amy in the care of her maternal grandmother (Close, made up to look a touch Edith Bunker-ish), who represents the only constant, stabilizing influence in the girl’s life. Two years later, when Joe returns, deported and sentenced to five years’ probation (the judge was a jazz fan), the family settles into an uneasy threesome. Amy is a young woman now, with a musician boyfriend of her own (excellent newcomer Caleb Landry Jones, also on Sundance screens in “God’s Pocket”), and Joe tries for a while to stay clean, to become the father he yearns to be. You don’t need to know the real-life outcome of Albany’s narrative, though, to see where this is going, and some of the best scenes in “Low Down” are those devoted to Amy’s own dawning realization that she is at a loss to save her dad — even at one putting herself in harm’s way to score him the drugs she knows he craves.
“Low Down” offers no shortage of similarly affecting moments. Close, who’s every bit the equal of Hawkes and Fanning here, has the anguished gaze of a mother who feels she has somehow failed, at one point cradling her adult son in her arms and whispering, “My poor lost boy.” And Heady has one great, astringent scene towards the end — an attempted mother-daughter reunion short-circuited by boozy self-loathing. Yet the film as a whole has an oddly shapeless feel; it doesn’t so much flow from one scene to the next as lurch spasmodically, and it lacks a clear point of view. (The movie opens with Amy’s voiceover narration, and is at its strongest when it seems to be unfolding through her eyes, but too often veers away to scenes that don’t involve her.) It’s also a good 10-15 minutes too long. Preiss may have been trying to infuse “Low Down” with the feeling of jazz — with unpredictable, ever-shifting rhythms — but he only partly succeeds. He’s made a good movie with a better one trapped somewhere inside.
In addition to multiple tracks by the real Albany, the pic’s superb jazz soundtrack, produced by Swiss-Israeli composer/arranger Ohad Talmor, features classic performances by Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach alongside new recordings featuring trumpeter Russ Johnson and pianist Jacob Sacks.