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USA 1999
Directed by
Woody Allen
92 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Sweet And Lowdown

Synopsis: In 1930s America Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is a talented jazz guitarist with a style similar to that of Django Reinhardt. Although his sights are set on the bigtime, typical of his breed, Emmet's dreams are forever waylaid by wine, women and song.

Periodically Woody Allen forsakes his staple fare of contemporary middle-class angst for a dalliance with his favourite period of American popular culture - the Jazz era. Anyone who has seen his 1987 film, Radio Days, will know what to expect here stylistically. Using one of his favoured narrative techniques, a series of vignettes about a fictional subject strung together by simulated interviews with recognizable real-life commentators, Allen tells the story of the somewhat flaky guitarist wizard and would-be hustler Emmet Ray (played with great enthusiasm by Penn) who lives in the shadow of his contemporary, the great (and historically real) Django Reinhardt. This is, of course, a contrivance for Allen to play lots of his favourite music and recreate the snappy Deco style in décor and costumes.

Lovers of 1930s guitar-led jazz will enjoy this film greatly and Allen effectively captures his fictional hero's Depression-era milieu, part defiant escapism, partcruel desperation, the look of which we are well-familiar with. Seductively shot by Zhao Fei, who was cinematographer for Zhang Yimou's 1920's historical drama, Raise The Red Lantern this is a visual treat and Allen's creative team has flawlessly re-created the interiors and exteriors of the period. Aside from Penn, the other principals, Uma Thurmann and Samantha Morton, are excellent in their parts, Anthony LaPaglia brings off a minor role as a Bronx hoodlum.and all-round this is an enjoyable, well-made film in Allen's typically slightly-absurdist manner.

On the downside, and this is something also typical of Allen's production over the past decade or more, the material is stretched thin, either repeating itself (particularly the reference to Django) or simply sounding like any other Allen film. Like popular music, in which the essence is communicated quickly in a simple and predictable format, you've got to know when to stop. Unfortunately Allen's chorus is repeated too often and the more verses he adds, the more one's interest wanes.

Will Woody ever give us a great film again? If we assume Sweet and Lowdown is derived from Allen's reflections on his own artistic career (with perhaps Fellini occupying the place of Reinhardt) he seems to be saying "no". His fans around the world will no doubt live in hope and keep going to see his films and this will, for the most part, keep them satisfied.




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