'Sweet & Lowdown' is the best Woody Allen film since 'Bullets Over Broadway'- which also created meticulous period detail, as exact as in films like 'Once Upon a Time in America', 'The Godfather Part II', 'The Conformist' and 'The Age of Innocence'. Its bitter-sweet tone is closer to the 'serious'-period of Allen- underrated films such as 'Another Woman', 'Crimes & Misdeameanours' and 'Husbands & Wives'.
Samantha Morton and Sean Penn are fantastic- as are the supporting cast- including the bemused copa-club owner from 'Goodfellas'. Penn's acting against the mute character of Hattie is wonderful- this, along with the music and period detail, makes this the best film Woody has made in ages.
Too many of his recent films have been sloppy, half-amusing attempts at recapturing the 'early, funny period'. Though we had 'indulgences'- such as 'Everyone Says I Love You' (the 90's equivalent of 'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy')and the pseudo-'La Dolce Vita' of 'Celebrity' (a bitter nadir, following on from the spleenventing remake of 'Stardust Memories', 'Deconstructing Harry' (a lazy film that reworked old short stories and aspects of 'Another Woman').
The dialogue is just pefect here, not too funny, but funny enough. Along with 'Husbands & Wives' and 'Bullets Over Broadway', this is a highlight of Allen's lacklustre offerings in the last decade or so. I think this is such a good film, that it would appeal to those not Woody-fixated. A modern classic.
on 9 January 2002
As only Woody Allen can, here is another gem giving all the "live interviews" with folk who knew Emmit Ray and understood his strengths, fears and neuroses - not far distant from those seemingly portrayed by Woody Allen himself.
Whilst the story and the characters are more than sufficient to hold the viewers attention, the music - arranged and directed by Dick Hyman - is phenomenal. I had a broad beam on my face the whole way through.
Others have said it and I can't improve, only repeat. Woody Allen has achieved an unparelleled authenicity unmatched by his contemporary film making peers.
Hyman's arrangements, encompassing Howard Alden's guitar parts, make for a sympathetic and nostalgic return trip to an era of unquestionably great music. Whilst Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's contribution is limited to just the one number (Mystery Pacific), the overall feel of this jaunty and uplifting soundtrack is overwhelmingly Reinhardt - which is appropriate - given actor Sean Penn's character in the film is that of the "world's second greatest ever guitar player" (of the period). There is however nothing whatsoever second rate about the performances on this accompanying soundtrack. Classics including Just A Gigolo, I'll See You In My Dreams, Sweet Georgia Brown, and It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) are transformed into Django styled ditties, that have rarely - if ever before - been recorded with such magnificent clarity. A terrific dinner party album, this soundtrack is, like the film itself, a winner in every way.
on 14 December 2003
As a big fan of the work of Woody Allen, I approached this film with some trepidation. The subject matter seemed obscure, the choice of Sean Penn in the lead role would not be my first choice and the lack of Woody Allen himself in an acting role (although he does appear as a 'critic') didn't make for a promising film.
However having watched it a number of times I love this film. It is beautifully shot, the music is fantastic (as a guitarist, this film turned me on to the work of Django)and the acting is excellent. Sean Penn plays the role of Emmett Ray brilliantly and the film has some delightful and poignant moments.
If you like Woody Allen, watch this film. And then watch it again. Lose yourself in the beatiful music and be thankful that there are still film-makers prepared to make films like this - little, perfect gems that don't require prequels or sequels and play just as well on DVD at home as they do in the cinema.
Andy Lloyd - December 2003
on 13 March 2012
This is a review for the european version on sale at the time of writing. I only bought this because the UK version seems to be out of print or costs a fortune and this is region 2 rather than a US version.
The copy I received wasn't the same cover as advertised but you can just play the original english language version with no subtitles and it's just the same as watching an english version. The menus are in german but I could easily navigate. There is also a good booklet about the movie and Woody included, which is great except it's in german too! There was also a french press conference in the extras with Woody and Samantha Morton. Unfortunately Woody is pretty fluent in french and subtitles were german so I could only understand Samantha's answers.
As for the movie itself, it was made in an era when a lot of Woody's work was being slated by critics and fans alike but for me stands out as a return to his better, subtler movies in his prime and seems to be echoed by the generally positive reviews this received at the time. English girl Samantha Morton stole the show for me and totally deserved her oscar nomination without uttering a word. Anyone who knows Harpo Marx will appreciate how much she studied him for the role.
Sweet, gentle, sad, with amazing performances by Sean Penn and Samantha
Interestingly, this got mixed reviews on release for being 'small' in
scope, but to me that's its great strength. As screwed up as the Sean
Penn character is, we still get pulled into him, and it makes for a
lovely portrait of a sad, lost, brilliant jazz guitarist whose ego may
be even bigger than his great talent. Penn and Allen conspire to
create one of the most simultaneously infuriating and oddly
ingratiating characters of recent memory
No big conclusions or statements, just a subtle, brilliantly acted
comic and tragic study of humanity. That's enough make this the
strongest Woody Allen film for a number of years.
Two comments on the DVD. For some psychotic reason, the region
1 disc, also available on Amazon was released with
a doctored 4:3 version only. I know it's cheaper than
this out-of print UK version, but its not worth it. This is a beautifully
composed film visually, and seeing it with a large part of the image gone is a real loss.
Also, this marks yet another Woody Allen film currently out-of-print,
meaning that some of his best work is no longer being made in either
the UK or USA. I keep waiting for the re-release/upgrade announcements, but
have heard or seen nothing for months. So in case these films are being pulled
for some obscure legal or other reason, you might want to grab copies
while you can.
I loved this film! It has been beautifully and lovingly put together by Woody Allen, and his vast knowledge of the subject positively shines through. The story is told by anecdotal narration from Allen and other experts on jazz, interwoven with re-enactments of the events they describe played out by Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman and the rest of the cast. This documentary style format works supremely well, and is not at all disjointed. The various actors acquit themselves more than admirably, particularly Sean Penn who was almost born to play the part, so enthusiastically does he throw himself into it.
The story is that of the working life of Emmet Ray, a great American jazz guitarist of the late 20s early 30s, second only, so he claimed, to Django Reinhardt. We are shown how his career progresses (or, arguably, regresses) from his early beginnings, when he was pimping in order to supplement his income, to his eventual disappearance from the jazz scene to who knows where.
Despite the hugely unpleasant traits he exhibits during the course of the film (mistreatment of the women in his life, a tendency to overspend and steal, bizarre hobbies etc), there is something fundamentally likeable about him. It is this, coupled with the glorious soundtrack and insightful comments of the narrators which make this film great rather than merely good.
So, if you have 90 minutes of spare time on your hands, you could do far worse than to devote them to watching this magical masterpiece, which is, in my opinion, Woody Allen’s best ever film. Enjoy.
In amongst the relative dearth of decent post-mid 90s (since Mighty Aphrodite, in fact) Woodys there are a few hidden gems and (for me, at least) this 1999 effort is one of the very best. Shot in (fictional) semi-documentary style, with voiceovers from real-life characters (including Allen himself, plus noted jazz critics such as Nat Hentoff and Stanley Crouch), Sweet And Lowdown charts the life and career of 1930s jazz guitarist and Django Reinhardt-obsessive, Emmet Ray (played by Sean Penn). Subject (and milieu)-wise, this is familiar territory for Allen, whose earlier (and, admittedly, superior) films Bullets Over Broadway and The Purple Rose Of Cairo focus on themes of 'artistic obsession’ and 'art over love’ in Depression-era USA – whilst the 'struggling artist’ thread also recurs in the more up-to-date setting of 1984’s brilliant Broadway Danny Rose. Of course, the 1930s 'jazz club and speakeasy’ backdrop is also something close to Allen’s heart (himself a massive Reinhardt fan) and again he includes here many vibrant, atmospheric club scenes, plus much intoxicating music (with guitar mostly played by Californian musician Howard Alden, who also taught Penn his 'fretboard miming technique’).
It’s a film which should not (I feel) only appeal to Allen aficionados. For a start, the actor Allen does not appear and whilst (understandably) much of the comedy comprises fairly typical (albeit, less frequent) Allen one-liners, the film has a thoughtful and serious undercurrent of 'art vs. love’ as Penn’s Ray falls for Samantha Morton’s mute, laundry-woman, Hattie. Both actors deliver (for me) near career-best performances, he as the eccentric, often cruel and vain, thick-skinned self-obsessive (but, of course, with thinly disguised humanity) and she as the submissive, attention-stricken innocent (in a truly brilliant, almost Chaplin-esque, performance of great empathy). Narrative-wise, Allen’s film is 'light-episodic’ as the couple struggle to survive in the harsh economic times and Ray is destined never to achieve the acknowledged fame and respect of his hero Reinhardt. Allen includes a number of impressive set-piece scenes including that (harking back to Broadway Danny Rose) of an 'outback town’ talent competition (featuring a saw player, bird impressionist, spoon player, etc), before time passes (in the fictional documentary) and we find Ray married to Una Thurman’s 'pretentious analyst’ and writer (in effect a female incarnation of John Cusack’s character from Bullets Over Broadway) in, for me, the film’s least engaging section.
In the end, however, it is the Emmet/Hattie relationship that provides the film’s outstanding moments and the couple’s 'reunion’ scene towards the end is one of Allen’s greatest (in the same league as his closing scenes in Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose). Thereafter, he shows us how good a film-maker he could really be as his film tracks a similar path to its other major influence (I suspect) – Fellini’s masterpiece, La Strada.
on 11 May 2011
This film is a delight. Is there nothing Sean Penn can't put his mind to in the realm of acting? Here he plays a self-centred Django Reinhardt devotee. The results are hilarious. Samantha Morton, as his deaf, long-suffering girlfriend, is equally up to the task performance-wise. One of the best films I've ever seen.
on 16 April 2014
You can't fault the actors for the fact that this movie isn't all that engaging -- and you can't fault the designer and cinematographer either. Period detail, period costumes, the music, the whole look and sound -- all are fine. Nor is there necessarily anything wrong with the pseudo-documentary concept: the 1930s jazz-expert talking heads, including Woody Allen himself, who come on screen at transitional points and move the story along (including the neat three-ending trick). No . . . the problem is in the writing, and Sean Penn, one of the finest actors of his generation, works hard to make his character, Emmett Ray, out of a bundle of tics -- the Django obsession, the pool, the train watching, the rat-shooting. It doesn't work because finally there isn't a character there -- there's a cartoon sketch of the artist who is bad at everything but being an artist. So the fault is Woody Allen's in his capacity as writer. Penn's character has an oddball charm most of the time and is an oddball irritant at others. Samantha Morton is Hattie, his mute girlfriend -- so one can't complain that the role is underwritten -- and she's effective and touching, though the attraction to Emmett isn't clear -- nor is the attraction later in the movie of Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is a one-trick pony here, as a tony girl who seems drawn to men who do unusual things well, like jazz guitar playing (Emmett) and killing people (Anthony LaPaglia as a club boss's enforcer).
I think three stars is about right. It's not difficult to watch, it looks good, and it's not too long, at about 90 minutes. And there is the music. In this respect the movie is a little bit like "Inside Llewyn Davis," which also has a self-absorbed musician at its center and a good look (though a different one, of course) and soundtrack. Samantha Morton gives "Sweet and Lowdown" a bit more emotional pull than Carey Mulligan's character does for "Inside Llewyn Davis," but Llewyn, though one-dimensional, is less cartoonishly conceived than Emmett, and the scenes with his father and with the Chicago club owner have a gravity that nothing in "Sweet and Lowdown" does. But if you like the music, go for it . . .
on 8 November 2000
Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown is taking place in the early 30's. Sean Penn is playing a jazz guitarist with a strange obsession with Django Reinhardt. Penn's acting is excellent as usual and the first half of the movie is a bit of a masterpiece. It's when Uma Thurman enters the screen the movie looses some of it's intensity and pace. As a summary, this is the best film Allen achived in several years and absolutly a step in the right direction. (And I have to mention that the soundtrack is really something special)