Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Then Viewed at the Odeon on London Road in screens five or six. I was the only audience member and at one point during the trailers I had to get up to go to the toilet. Philosophically I wandered if like the tree in the forest not making a sound, the screen would cease to exist if I wasn’t there.

Now I’ve now reached the end of the nineties and it’s with some surprise as I watched Sweet and Lowdown that I realised that Woody hadn’t until that point made a bad film. When I was doing the Hitchcock thing, I was disappointed to find that I was impressed with less than a half of his work but with the exception of – A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy or Another Woman – I’ve been constantly delighted and looked forward to watching all of these films. Neither of those is a bad film and have enough of a positive critical response to suggest that it’s simply my own feelings about them. He’s constantly trying to up his game, create some magic. There’s no complacency here.

He could, for example, have churned out dozens of Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattans, relationship dramas set in New York. That’s certainly what his reputation suggests and with a location change worked perfectly well for both Ozu and Rhomer. And yet here we are in 1999 and he’s finally produced a musical biopic commemorating his love of jazz music, the jazz music that’s permeated all of his previous work. But of course, being Woody Allen, it’s a fictional biography structured around a series of anecdotes offered by real jazz experts including the director himself who sometimes can’t quite get the story straight (at one point we’re shown three different versions of the same event, just as outlandish as each other).

The storytelling idea is somewhat similar to Radio Days or Broadway Danny Rose and like those films by suggesting that what we’re seeing are the half forgotten moments and rare insights, he succeeds in creating a legend. A viewer hitting this film cold could be convinced, as I was initially (I even looked for some of his records), despite the eccentricities, (“Wanna go to the dump and shoot some rats?”) that Emmet Ray existed, especially with the inclusion of so many real life names and performers. Woody could have created a film about a real figure, but that wouldn’t necessarily have provided the leeway to add his usual brand of poetry, improvisation and irony.

Much of the film’s success stems, of course, from Sean Penn’s central performance. Woody says that he didn’t give the actor much direction, that there was no discussion about the character and back story. Emmet Ray is in the script, the arrogance, rudeness and peculiarity, but Penn brings to what could have been a cartoon character, a humanity, the glint in his eye that explains how someone so broadly sketched could produce such transcendental music. The guitar playing isn’t him – it’s Howard Alden overdubbed -- but Alden taught Penn to play and the actions are very convincing; the actors makes Ray the kind of performer seems to enter a trance the rest of the world becoming beside the point.

In directing Samantha Morton, Woody suggested that he’d like to see her play Hattie like Harpo Marx. Once she’d found out who Harpo Marx was he then had to ask her to key down her facial expressions a little bit after a few days because the impersonation was too uncanny. Her job is largely to react to Penn’s cruelty, but she’s able to communicate an awful lot through the shape of her mouth. Uma Thurman is funny, but the relationship between Emmett and Hattie is so strongly observed the one brief moment when the film loses its way is when Thurman is front and centre. But that scene also gives us the joy of seeing John Waters acting in a Woody Allen film (imagine the reverse of that scenario) so it’s probably forgiveable.

The cinematographer is a surprising choice; Fei Zhao is best known for giant historic Chinese epics (his next film would be House of Flying Daggers) and would work with Woody on this and Small Time Crooks. He brings a rare depth of field to shots and unlike some of Woody’s other collaborators seems to be accentuating the character rather than simply filming around them. That’s especially true in the scene were Ray’s moon folly is hoisted into the rafters. At first we see it from the ground from the steady position of his fellow bandmembers, then there’s a reverse point of view shot from Emmett’s drunken perspective in which that ground is wobbling about. We know immediately that the scheme isn’t going to work and await with trepidation the impending disaster.

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