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Low Down

There's a very telling fire escape exchange between Amy-Jo  (Elle Fanning) and Alain (Peter Dinklage), two of the many marginal characters who inhabit a Los Angeles hotel/apartment building in the film Low Down.  The young woman points out that the music heard is being played by her father.  "Is Joe your dad?" Alain asks.  "Yeah," responds Amy-Jo, beaming.  Alain says nothing, but the expression that appears on his already sad countenance is all too eloquent.  There's the brief suggestion of a smile, but the lingering cast is knowing, rueful.  "Poor thing," he might as well say.

The 1970's Los Angeles of Low Down is pretty well circumscribed by the film's title.  One half expects Charles Bukowski to wander into the frame or be sitting in one of the dives into which we're which we're occasionally taken.  In that basin of almost indomitable brightness, what sunlight we see is indirect, often refracted through dirty windows.  A low down world seedy hotels, darkened bars and lost souls it might well be, but Amy-Jo is happy enough when she's in the company of her jazz pianist father, whom she "loves beyond all proportion," as Elle Fanning says in voiceover at the outset of the film.

Beyond it's relatively flawless art direction, the physical details of Low Down speak of an insider's knowledge.  This would be the real Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of highly-regarded (if little known these days) jazz pianist Joe Albany.  Ms. Albany wrote the film script with Topper Lilien, based on her memoir, Low Down:  Jazz, Junk, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood.  Amy-Jo Albany (named, apparently, after her mother's favorite two characters from Little Women) infuses the story with a funky 70s verisimilitude while avoiding the sort of romanticism to which a lesser, touristic rendering might be prone, given milieu of squalor and jazz, common enough vacation spots for the poseur.

As we find him in the mid-70's, Joe Albany is decidedly low down himself, far removed from sessions with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker in the forties and not yet enjoying a late-career recording renaissance of sorts in the decade or so to come.  The Joe Albany of Low Down struggles, like many of his contemporaries, not only with a flagging interest in jazz in the United States, but an ongoing addiction to heroin.  The gigs are hard to come by, the bad influences ever-present in Los Angeles and Albany struggles to stay out of jail.

Typical of Amy-Jo's response to the vicissitudes of being the daughter of this particular troubled jazz musician is her reaction her mother's brief reconciliation with her father.  In Low Down, Joe Albany is portrayed as a generally charming but hapless parent.  Beyond the broader issues of his drug addiction and trouble with the law which threaten to separate the father and daughter, there are more quotidian indications, as when Joe is helping the asthmatic Amy-Jo with an inhaler while the latest in his endless chain of cigarettes fumes in an adjacent ash tray.  But relatively speaking, Joe seems like parent of the year material compared to Amy-Jo's mother, Sheila (Lena Headey).  Amy-Jo is rightfully wary of the apparent rekindling of romance with her parents and seems not in the least disappointed when her toxic, alcoholic mother sneaks out one morning, taking most of the cash that is in Joe's wallet. Instead, it's a chance to spend Valentine's Day with her father, even if he forgot the occasion.  

That optimism of Amy-Jo, like some wildflower sprung up between the cracks of a derelict stretch of sidewalk, is one things that keeps Low Down from wallowing in its relative squalor.  This is not the definitive Joe Albany story, it's the remembrance of his daughter, bookended within several years of the 1970s.   The actual life of the pianist was apparently both better and, at times, far worse than what we see in Low Down.  Albany's lost decades included not only jail time, but stretches in mental hospitals (he speaks of a fleeting, meaningful encounter with Charlie Parker at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany:  A Jazz Life).  His second wife committed suicide, while the third nearly died of a drug overdose.    

The script of Amy-Jo Albany and Topper Lilien certainly doesn't portray its small world as a kind of alternate Los Angeles wonderland.  The details are fascinating but don't tend toward the romantic, unless one is inclined see them as such.  Even the one slightly wondrous aspect of Amy-Jo's hotel life, her brief association with Alain, is ruined when the young woman sees the reality behind his slightly fantastical existence.  

When the two meet in the lobby, Amy is surprised to find that Alain is actually a resident; she had thought him a visitor.  He then takes her back to his decidedly non-code dwelling, which involves entering through a jagged hole in a plaster wall to an improvised dwelling where Alain puts on an opera record and receives her with a kind of charming courtliness.  The brief visit ends with Amy-Jo kissing the surprised Alain, the young woman obviously hungry for any receipt and expression of warmth.  Alas, a second visit to Alain's makeshift apartment is another in a series of disillusionments.  She observes him in fanciful costume, applying blue body paint.  When Amy-Jo follows him, she finds that her friend is an actor in a kind of specialty porn film.  

One can't but fear that the sweet Amy-Jo will succumb in some more ruinous way to the undertow of this world through which she willingly follows her father.  And there's a strong indication toward film's end that such degradation is at least visited upon her, if only for a time.  An ill-advised visit to her mother, stationed in a dive in the middle of the day and steadily divesting herself of liver and life, involves little more than the mother spewing invective at her daughter.  This sends Amy-Jo into something a downward spiral, which begins when she is propositioned on the street and continues in the apartment of one of her father's musician friends, Hobbs (Flea, surprisingly effective and nearly unrecognizable, if only because he's always wearing a shirt), in which it seems the best thing that might happen to her would be the purchase of heroin for which she has come.  But the most awful, dramatic things we might suspect do not occur, or at least go unseen.  This descent is handled elliptically, with Amy-Jo telling us in voice-over that she ultimately chose not to follow the destructive path of her father.  So goes Low Down, very credibly offering its glance into this world of half-light, without dwelling for effect.

For Elle Fanning, Low Down is a second Los Angeles story in which she has starred as the daughter of an artist of one sort or another.  The first was Somewhere (2010), one of the several Sophia Coppola films about exotic (or at least white and entitled) birds thrashing around in their gilded cages.  In Somewhere, Fanning and Stephen Dorff are playmates as much as father and daughter, largely sequestered at the Chateau Marmont or other exclusive digs.  Low Down might be more a matter of Nowhere, but it also takes place in a particular, largely interior Los Angeles.  Even as she has grown into her 5'8'' frame, Elle Fanning has lost little of the radiance so apparent in Somewhere.  She also remains an extremely natural presence before the camera, able to summon whatever emotion and intelligence that are called for.   Early in Low Down, when Joe Albany and Hobbs finish a number they are practicing, the father asks, "Whud'ya think of that?"  Fanning's "I love that one," seems both the expression of a proud, gushing daughter and a young woman who knows good jazz when she hears it.  And the accompanying smile is all the light the room, or that world behind drawn shades would seem to require.    

Beyond Fanning, Low Down benefits from good character work all around.  This is true of Flea and Dinklage, as well as Glenn Close as Joe Albany's long-suffering mother, who takes in Amy-Jo when her father is jailed and later when he abruptly leaves the country for two years.  

Mark Ruffalo was apparently the first actor considered for the role of Joe Albany.  It's no slight to Mr. Ruffalo,but as is usually the case, once John Hawkes has assumed a character, it's difficult to imagine anyone else in his place.  Thus it is with his take on Joe Albany.  Hawkes has amply proven he can manifest all manner of darkness, as with his roles in Winter's Bone (2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).  And there's evidence of hard traveling in his eyes as the laughter of Joe Albany fades, or he's on his way to or from a fix.  Otherwise, the jazz pianist is played without his New Jersey accent and with the touch of grandiloquence (mainly with his daughter) written into the film's script.  Hawkes is a musician, but could not play the piano prior to Low Down.  He taught himself to do so and replicates several Albany solos for the film, something director Jeff Preiss has called "a superhuman accomplishment of acting."

Hawkes credible playing allows Jeff Preiss to avoid the usual contrivance of cutting from an actor's face to the hands of the professional musician actually playing the notes.  It's just one element of a film that respects the music at its center, sadly not an element that ostensible music films and documentaries always get right.  In Low Down, numbers are played out until their completion.  We even see Amy-Jo on a couple of occasions pick up the stylus on a record player and move it back to the beginning of a favorite tune that had just ended.  It doesn't hurt Jeff Preiss is also a jazz aficionado, which informs not only space allotted for the music but the style of his shooting.

Low Down is actually the first feature directed by Jeff Preiss, which you wouldn't know to look at the film.  Preiss has had a long career behind the camera, usually working as the director of photography, as was the case with Bruce Weber's Chet Baker documentary, Let's Get Lost.  For Low Down, Preiss made the decision to shoot on film, and 16mm at that.  So we have lovely, slightly grainy images which suit both the time and the interiors of refracted and indirect light. 

The decision to shoot on actual film is a brave one these days, as most theaters have converted to digital projection, largely at the behest of Hollywood studios.  There aren't many theaters that can play 16mm films at this point, fewer still that actually wish to do so.  Low Down is in several ways a personal picture.  Not only in the sense that its the remembrance of a woman who lived this particular slice of life, but for most all involved.  There may be the hope that a impressive turn might draw the attention of producers who will offer more prominent, more lucrative work; a call or return to the Hollywood mainstream.  But for Amy-Jo Albany, Jeff Preiss and the film's actors, it seems a matter of loving their art - film, music, what have you - beyond all proportion.  It's the sort of foolhardiness that should be encouraged.  

The man himself, Joe Albany.
Joe Albany: A Jazz Life, glancing and elliptical in its own way,  is currently available in its entirety on YouTube.  



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