There are two dramas about jazz currently in theaters, but they couldn’t be more different.
Whiplash, focusing on a determined student of the drums and his maniacal band leader, is like one of those Buddy Rich solos the kid idolizes: hot, sweaty and in-your-face. Low Down, on the other hand, is like the version of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life played in one of this film’s club scenes: somber, moody and cool to the touch.
Low Down covers two years in the very real life of pianist Joe Albany, a man who played with some of the greats, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, but never became a star. Based on the memoir by his daughter, Amy, it chronicles his struggles being a single dad, struggling musician and heroin addict.
It’s the mid-’70s in Los Angeles and Joe (a very good John Hawkes) lives with Amy (Elle Fanning) in a decrepit hotel somewhere on the seedy side of Hollywood. Joe loves his daughter but he seems to cherish his addiction more, forever relapsing into his old ways despite the anguish it’s causing her, his mom (Glenn Close) and his displeased parole officer (Burn Gorman).
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It doesn’t help that his alcoholic ex-wife (Lena Headey) tries to stagger back into his life or that his friends, like trumpet player Hobbs (an excellent and nearly unrecognizable Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), can’t clean up either.
Director Jeff Preiss is best known as a documentary cinematographer ( Let’s Get Lost, the doc about trumpeter Chet Baker), and that’s apparent here in the often beautifully composed shots. Working from a script by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien, Preiss doesn’t go for the easy hysterics of the typical addiction drama. He instead offers a quiet character study of a talented man in trouble and the effect that has on those who love him.
The filmmakers also do a good job of capturing a slice of pre-gentrified Hollywood where its faded glamor mirrors Albany’s diminished dreams. While Low Down may not have Whiplash’s ferocity, its haunted sense of a life unfulfilled — Albany died in 1988 — is equally powerful.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens Dec. 5 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
* * * * (out of five)
Director: Jeff Preiss
Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close
Rated: R (drug use, strong language, sexual content)
Running time: 114 min.