Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 54 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This film’s title might make you think of Woody Allen’s 1999 jazz film. Take out the “Sweet” from his title, and you definitely have this film. First time director Jeff Preiss’s dark film lives up to its title, following in the wake of such drug doomed jazz musician films as Round Midnight or Bird. It is probably because of its somber tone, as well as lack of promotion, that this little indie film is having difficulty in attracting an audience–it played for just a week at an art house in Cincinnati, so if it has opened in your area and you want to see it, do not delay.
Based on Amy-Jo Albany and Topper Lilien’s screen adaptation of Albany’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, this true story of jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes) is told through the eyes of his daughter (Elle Fanning). It begins in 1974 when the two are living in a run-down L.A. flophouse where other would-be entertainers, prostitutes, artists, and even a dwarf named Alain (Peter Dinklage), eke out a meager existence. Just entering her teen years, Amy-Jo seldom sees her mother Sheila (Lena Headey), who can usually be found at a bar lost in a persistent alcoholic haze.
Joe, usually with his horn playing sidekick Hobbs (Flea), picks up gigs at pizza parlors and small clubs. He is a fine musician, but his addiction continually short-circuits his breaking into the big time. He is in and out of jail on drug charges, so when he decides to break parole and run off to Europe where prospects for playing are much better, Amy-Jo is dropped off to live with her grandmother, known in the film only as Gram (Glenn Close). Gram proves to be the one constant in the girl’s erratic life that she can always depend upon for love and support.
Joe in Europe achieves some success playing in clubs and making records, but after a couple of years this is spoiled by his drug addiction, the authorities deporting him back to the States. By now Amy-Jo has a boyfriend Cole (Caleb Landry Jones), a musician in a band, but he will offer her no more stability than her father because his epilepsy can strike him down at any moment. Joe does try to clean up his life and be the loving father his daughter needs, but as he confesses at one point, his heroin highs are the only time he really feels good about life.
Amy-Jo and Gram are very much like the minister father whose son in A River Runs Through It is so self-destructive–they must stand by and watch helplessly as there loved one dooms himself. Joe escapes a prison sentence for breaking his parole because the judge loved his recordings, but he cannot escape his craving for heroin, especially when his jazz side man Hobbs (Flea) whom he pals around with not only is an addict but also a dealer.
There is a Pieta-like shot of Gram cradling Joe in her arms and whispering, “My poor lost boy.” Thus this film could be seen as a stark morality tale, one that preachers of a by-gone era might have pointed to as an example of Paul’s warning that “the wages of sin is death.”
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially John Hawkes and Elle Fanning in the lead roles. He achieves that tired, gaunt look whose face shows that he has been to hell and yet only there finds a moment of bliss. She displays the naiveté of an adolescent who all too quickly learns that loved ones can disappoint you. Despite the latter she cannot stop loving her father, so that even though the film is a downer, I will remember it as a good father-daughter film. If you go, or more probably, catch it on streaming video, I recommend that you do not watch it alone.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Dec. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.