Review: The Recut ‘Low Down’ Starring Elle Fanning & John Hawkes Is Still Too Shapeless

Low DownReviewer’s note: I saw “Low Down” at Sundance earlier this year in January. Since then, the movie has apparently gone through some kind of rigorous edit to improve the picture and give it shape. Having recently rewatched the new edit—now 114 minutes down from 119 originally—I can safely say that most of the original issues still stand, unfortunately. John Hawks and Elle Fanning are great, but “Low Down” is still far too monotonous, lethargic, and sluggish a picture to really endorse in any meaningful way. What follows is a slightly edited version of my original Sundance review.

Evincing a similar mustard brown aesthetic and destitute mood—spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically—“Low Down” is to 1970s jazz what John Huston’s “Fat City” is to that era of boxing: a down and out look at talented three-time losers that can’t get past their addictions, demons, and terribly self-destructive qualities. But unlike Huston’s Stacy Keach pugilist drama (uneven, but a still fascinating slow-motion character train wreck), “Low Down” is interminably bleak and features a listless rhythm that would embarrass any musician looking to engage with it.

Low Down

Set in the jazz scene of 1970s Hollywood, Elle Fanning stars as Amy-Jo Albany, the sweet-natured and neglected teenager daughter of bebop jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes). Told from Amy-Jo’s perspective, and looking back at her unpleasant childhood, the movie opens up with voice-over that declares the girl’s unremitting adoration for her father—a love that is "out of all proportion,” she says. What the young, innocent adolescent doesn’t tell us—as Joe is arrested and slammed up against a car in front of her eyes—is how her disappointing father will abidingly break her heart without fail for the rest of his life, over and over again. Featuring two of the worst possible parents to ever grace the screen (Lena Headey plays her awful, alcoholic mother), empathy pours out for Amy-Jo’s character, but the movie—that sorely lacks a sense of humor—abuses that emotion by grinding away at depictions of the monstrously selfish duo and their neglectful actions.

With few prospects or hopes, Albany’s downward trajectory begins immediately. They live in a flop house, drug-dealing friends stop by with frequency, and heroin binges, financial troubles, arrests, heart of gold hookers, and worse, all arrive, at the expense of the young Amy-Jo. While the chain-smoking pianist is a sweet, caring man at heart, most of the father’s poor choices render this quality moot. “Low Down” also embraces the clichés of ‘70s jazz bohemia: the hepcats, the ubiquitous smack, the "far-out" reactions to impressive music, and every component of that milieu you can think of. Based on co-screenwriter Amy-Jo Albany‘s true-life memoir (“Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood”) about her obsessive and thoughtless smack-addicted father, “Low Down” was never going to be a enjoyable laugh riot, but a producer (or the director) might have tried to mitigate the inherent miserablist qualities of the material (the new cut admittedly does shave down the wretchedness somewhat, but it’s only by a few percentage points). The film plays nary a note of reprieve, and the dank aesthetic does nothing to help the mood. “Low Down” is really a downer.

Low DownWhile this is Amy-Jo’s story, this passive protagonist has little to do other than to sit on the sidelines and observe her father’s well-meaning, but horrible behavior as he falls prey time and time again to his addiction. “Low Down” is arguably almost two grueling hours of Amy-Jo just enduring the garbage her parents and life put her through with no active goals or ways to get out. She’s just a teenage girl after all, so her lot in life (and by proxy, the audiences) is to suffer through it all.

Shot by terrific up-and-coming cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who learned under the tutelage of natural-light advocate Harris Savides, the DP is a wonderful emerging talent who has pushed the limits of low-light natural shooting (check out his remarkable stuff in Ry Russo-Young’s“Nobody Walks” and Sofia Coppola’s “Bling Ring”), but “Low Down” often threatens to cross the line into underlit scenes and an atmosphere that is akin to years of smoke inhalation abuse. While period (and thematically) accurate, it doesn’t help that the oppressive mushroom browns and variously ugly relish-stain colors makes for one drab looking picture. It’s also a case of just overdoing the overall production design. 

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Directed by experimental, commercial, music-video, jack-of-all-trades filmmaker Jeff Priess, the cinematographer of the noted Chet Baker documentary "Let’s Get Lost" by Bruce Weber, the first-time narrative feature director has been over this territory before (Baker was a similarly damaged artist with little tenacity other than his commitment to getting high). But unlike that aforementioned engaging jazz portrait, “Low Down” is mostly a slog of befuddled storytelling. Voiceovers are utilized and then abandoned. Freeze-frame techniques are employed abruptly and then discarded (though the Amy-Jo POV is less confused in the new cut, I’ll give it that). Not unlike what Steven Soderbergh did with “King Of The Hill,” another movie that examined a child left to fend for themselves in dour circumstances, at least superficially, “Low Down” doesn’t possess a similar charming spark or much of a narrative engine in comparison. The material is much darker of course, but the film is simply too shapeless and feckless to be effective. 

Featuring a first-rate cast in a mostly second-rate movie, Glenn Close co-stars as Joe Albany’s enabling mother, and the film’s strong supporting cast includes Peter Dinklage, Tim Daly, Taryn Manning, Billy Drago, River Ross, and Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, who plays a convincing jazz trumpeter friend (he’s also an executive producer on the picture along with the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Anthony Kiedis). But casting doesn’t make much of a difference. A subplot featuring Caleb Landry Jones as a young musician romancing Amy-Jo might have been an opportunity to alleviate the film’s pain slightly, but this digression does little to lift the mood and quickly becomes just as despondent as anything in Amy-Jo’s life (and it’s a surprise this section wasn’t cut out either, as well as Dinklage’s subplot as a porno actor that is left dangling like a loose thread). Downcast movies such as this one usually feature some kind of triumph over adversity, but Priess’ picture is just a slow-drawn portrait of deterioration and the vicious cycle of relapse, recovery, infinitum.

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Movies that put audiences through these kind of hopeless paces should probably err closer to the more tolerable 90-minute mark, but “Low Down” is largely relentless with the suffering it incurs, perhaps feeling obligated to tell all of the true-story of Albany’s life. Elle Fanning and John Hawkes are two of our finest actors, and almost anything they touch turns to gold—and yes, both of them are great here—but frankly, they deserve better. “Low Down” proves that even extraordinary performances can get outplayed by the grimness of a disheartening one-note song that ends almost as downheartedly as it begins. [C-]