Low Down Dir. Jeff Preiss

[Oscilloscope Laboratories ; 2014]

Styles: biopic, music film
Others: Let’s Get Lost

In 1988, fashion photographer Bruce Weber directed the documentary Let’s Get Lost, a profile of the troubled life and death of famed jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. The harrowing juxtaposition of Baker’s immense musical and vocal skill against his lifelong struggle with heroin addiction made for what is arguably one of the best documentary portraits of a musician ever created. Twenty-six years later, the cinematographer of Let’s Get Lost, Jeff Preiss, brings us a feature-film directorial debut that feels like that documentary’s kindred grandchild. Like Let’s Get Lost, Preiss’s Low Down follows an esteemed jazz musician and documents his struggles with heroin addiction and its derailing of his musical career. Based on Amy Jo Albany’s memoirs and recollections of her father, bebop pianist Joe Albany, Low Down stars John Hawkes and Elle Fanning as a father and daughter struggling through addiction and poverty in 1970s Los Angeles.

Though Low Down’s ostensible subject is Albany, a jazz pianist who played with the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, the film is primarily told through the eyes of teen daughter Amy Jo, and as such is as much a coming-of-age tale as a film about drugs and music. At the film’s start, Joe and Amy Jo live in seedy tenement housing in downtown LA, where Albany finds occasional work playing piano, avoids his parole officer, and sinks any money he finds into heroin. Meanwhile Amy Jo, who naturally oscillates between admiration and loathing for her father, explores the tenement building’s cast of damaged characters, including a similarly drug-addled prostitute who lives next door (Taryn Manning), and a pair of art-pornographers (Tim Daly and Peter Dinklage). Eventually, Joe returns to jail, and Amy Jo goes to live with her grandmother (Glenn Close) and seeks out her alcoholic mother (Lena Headey). These various meetings and conversations are stacked together without a strong sense of narrative urgency or order. Rather, they serve as various walls for Amy Jo, constant reminders of the dreary limits of her existence and the impossibility of escape.

As Amy Jo is a child who lives in a world of adults, Low Down is told through the eyes of a person who is constantly in places she isn’t meant to be. Amy Jo exists between adult interactions that she either isn’t supposed to know about, shouldn’t have to see, or doesn’t understand — a whispered conversation between Joe and his mother at the visiting room of the penitentiary, Joe’s sleepy, stumbling words delivered while he’s high, a secret viewing of the making of a pornographic film. Amy Jo’s eyes depict intimate father-daughter moments punctuated with heroin and poverty, and they also depict the hypocrisy of adults towards their children. In one scene, Joe attacks his mother through the haze of heroin withdrawal, and when Amy Jo calls her father an “asshole,” she is severely reprimanded by her grandmother, despite the fact that she’s just been assaulted by Joe himself. The gap in such moments between propriety and ugly reality underscore the pains of being in a world that wasn’t made for you and doesn’t want you.

In many ways Amy Jo’s vision exists solely as a foil for Joe’s character. In a big-name-filled cast (in addition to the aforementioned actors, we get Flea as Joe’s musical companion and a parole officer portrayed by Burn Gorman — yet another Game of Thrones actor!), Hawkes’s portrayal of Joe Albany is the anchor, a painfully real-seeming depiction of an addict. Described by his daughter as “some wayward melody who took the form of a man,” Hawkes is the perfect mixture of hip and hobbled, his shaky, deliberate walk the consummate embodiment of a body depleted by a lifetime of abuse. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s acting is inconsistent. Some of the interactions between characters fall flat and some of the conversations can feel forced and sometimes pointless. This stiffness in turn leaves it unclear whether some scenes are meant to intentionally feel awkward or just unintentionally end up that way.

Director Jeff Preiss has worked primarily as a cinematographer throughout his career, and his focus on camerawork and color shows in the film’s marked aesthetics. Set within the claustrophobic, tawny space of the tenement house apartment, Low Down is shakily told through a palette of yellows and greens and dimmed reds — the stuff of nightclubs and dinner parties. Its appropriately jazz-laden, morose soundtrack accompanies delicate contemporaneous details: ugly-looking food, tacky drapes, smoky carpets, and novelty candy. In Preiss’s Los Angeles, even the daytime looks like nothing more than the night’s yellowed leftovers. At one point, Joe brings home a paper bag filled with Valentine’s Day goodies for his daughter, but is arrested for violating his parole before he can make it home. Preiss highlights the broken contents of the paper bag on the pavement after Joe has been whisked away: a shattered bottle of Yoohoo, a can of corned beef hash, Valentine’s day candies and a cheesy card spilled out in the gutter. Such cinematographic highlights perfectly capture the problem of Joe and Amy Jo’s life together — the constant clashing of good intentions with ugly reality.

Like some of the moody improvisatory piano pieces that Joe plays throughout the film, Low Down strikes a long, monotonous tone rather than trying to create an arc of redemption or descent. This works both to the film’s advantage and sometimes against it. While Preiss, to his credit, doesn’t try to put an artificial sense of absolution into the narrative, Low Down can also feel like a laundry list of awful events — the neighboring prostitute’s daughter is exiled while her mother sees a john; a boyfriend suffers an epileptic seizure and is wrongfully arrested by the police; a peaceful walk through the woods is spoiled by Amy Jo’s mother’s stumbling alcoholic stupor; Joe gets clean and falls off the wagon time and time again, his arm covered in maroon-colored track marks. The sorrow and ugliness is constant and unflinching, but at times it can feel hammered in rather than finely cultivated. The revelatory nature of Albany’s playing, and his reverence for other jazz musicians, is the only escape offered for its single sustained note of misery.

Low Down might not quite capture the raw power of its spiritual antecedent, Let’s Get Lost. Clocking in at 120 minutes, it’s a tall order to hold its tragic tone for a full two hours. If nothing else, though, the film is an uncompromising look at addiction, and a testament to the clichéd but ever-present ability of music to transport us beyond reality — to make the yellowed rooms beautiful.

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