Joe Albany (1924-1988) was a minor bebop pianist who, like many jazz musicians of his era, became a heroin addict. His daughter, Amy-Jo, born in 1962, wrote a touching memoir about growing up with him — and not with her absent alcoholic mother — in a fleabag hotel on the fringes of the Hollywood demimonde. “Low Down,” directed by Jeff Preiss, cinematographer for the stunning Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost,” is an adaptation of her book.
Albany’s story is nowhere near as sensational or compelling as that of other West Coast jazzers, like Baker, not to mention the top jazz junkie of them all, Art Pepper. On the contrary; “Low Down” applies a studiously anti-sensationalist and realistic pace to a subject that, when you come down to it, is pretty dull — unless it happens to be you sticking the needle in your arm.
Shot in grainy color, often in semidarkness, and backgrounded with an atmospherically blues-jazzy score, the film gives off an after-hours languor, laced with cigarette smoke and dotted with red lipstick. It walks us through predictable scenes of shooting up, hip LP listening and playing, frustrated family members, European exile, scumbag friends, visits to the penitentiary and a not-so-predictable peek at a porn-movie set featuring a dwarf (Peter Dinklage).
But “Low Down” really isn’t about Albany, whose narcissistic insouciance John Hawkes captures well enough. It’s a family story about Amy-Jo, whose faith, hope and innocence we gradually watch fade from Elle Fanning’s supple face, even after Glenn Close, Albany’s sympathetic but eventually fed-up mom, winds up taking everyone in. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea offers a credible performance as Albany’s “beat” jazz junkie trumpeter friend, Lester Hobbs.
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“Low Down” nicely evokes a smokey mood of ’50s jazz and Hollywood noir and deserves points for its emotional straightforwardness, but its tired story and deliberate pace never really draw you in.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or email@example.com