Sweet and Lowdown

USA 1999

Film still for Sweet and Lowdown

Reviewed by Jonathan Romney


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Various jazz experts, including Woody Allen, tell the story of the great but obscure 30s guitarist Emmet Ray, a player second only to Django Reinhardt, but an obnoxious and dishonest womaniser. Cruising for girls on the New Jersey boardwalk, Emmet meets Hattie, a mute laundress, and they become lovers. She accompanies him on a cross-country trip to Hollywood, where he plays in a short film; Hattie is spotted by a director and enjoys a brief screen career. Emmet's recording career takes off but his manager warns him about his spending.

Later, after Emmet has left Hattie, he meets and marries Blanche, a wealthy would-be bohemian writer. When Emmet is sacked from a club, Blanche goes to intercede with its gangster owner and ends up running away with his henchman Al Torrio. Different versions are told of Emmet's pursuit of them. Emmet returns to New Jersey to see Hattie, but she tells him she is married with children. The experts say that at the end of his career, before he vanished, Emmet's playing became truly great.


Following the shapeless agitation of Celebrity, Woody Allen's cogent return to form in Sweet and Lowdown proves that he is fascinated less by celebrity and the noisy now, than by obscurity and the sublime mysteries of the forgotten. Sweet and Lowdown is one of Allen's occasional musings, à la E. L. Doctorow, on the apocryphal corners of modern American history (Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo) and another of his studies (Bullets over Broadway, Stardust Memories) of the contradictions between artistic brilliance and moral inadequacy. Apocryphal jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, Allen comments at the start, is "sort of pathetic in a way" but he's indisputably fascinating. He's a vain egotist who walks over people, just like the anti-hero novelist of Deconstructing Harry - except Emmet is worse, in that he has considerable charm and knows how to exploit it. As one character remarks, "No genius is worth too much heartache" - effectively the moral proposition under discussion in Harry.

Sweet and Lowdown is as simple and affecting as the title suggests - a series of anecdotes framed with commentary by jazz experts. But through this structure, Allen examines the difficulty of truly fathoming artists of the past, either through their work or through the stories told about them. The hard evidence about Emmet is in his recordings, while the catalogue of anecdotes about him is open to variation. We get several alternatives for Emmet's pursuit of his wife: Emmet gets hi-jacked by robbers, stages a melodramatic confrontation, or has a chance meeting with the nemesis he holds in awe, Django himself.

All stories are equally valid in this patchwork of fragments, and the Emmet Ray legend becomes all the more concrete the less the gaps are filled in. At one point, the story jumps from a time when Emmet and his mute mistress Hattie are inseparable to Emmet single again. We have to imagine his split with Hattie, an elision that makes their final meeting all the more resonant with the unspoken pain he has done her.

The film, in other words, uses muteness as metaphor, dramatising it in the figure of Hattie, Emmet's child-like, trusting and - everyone keeps assuming - mentally disadvantaged lover. Her intelligence comes into its own in their ambivalent reunion, when she tells Emmet that she is now married with children - all of this conveyed without a word from her. If we take her story at face value, it's sad enough that Emmet has lost his great love; but the outcome is that much richer if we imagine Hattie has invented it. Then it becomes not just a tactful way to reject the lover she knows can only hurt her, but also a gift - Hattie is offering him the heartbreak that makes the virtuoso a truly sublime player.

There's a terrible risk of cliché in this figure of the infinitely supportive mute muse - Hattie could so easily have been a return to Chaplin's eroticised waifs. What brings her alive is Samantha Morton's performance, silent but in its own way entirely musical - a subtle repertoire of reactions, gleeful surges and bursts of erotic fire, and much of it from under a horrible knitted hat. Morton and Penn (playing Emmet) duet astutely, her silences forming a complementary punctuation to his rakish bluster. Penn himself is on top form, portraying the musician not as a standard lovable rascal, but as a thoroughgoing creep, redeemed by his appetite and by the kinetic passion he puts into his music. Even more impressive than the fingering Penn learned for the guitar-playing scenes is the expression on Emmet's face as he plays, the look of a man captivated by his own congress with the sublime.

As you'd imagine from Allen, America's most famous enthusiast for a pre-bebop Eden, Sweet and Lowdown is told with real love for the period, and the film's look is typically flawless; Allen's regular designer Santo Loquasto is teamed here with DoP Zhao Fei (who has worked with both Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) to create a gently frosted image of the world seen as though through a haze of distant memory. Jazz fans, however, may be aggrieved by Allen's perpetual blind spot: his inability to handle black characters. Black musicians do appear, but only as background figures - Emmet jams with them at a party, then steals a lighter. This might be Allen's incidental comment on white musicians' appropriation of the spark of black jazz, but that, I suspect, would be stretching a point.


Woody Allen
Jean Doumanian
Woody Allen
Director of Photography
Zhao Fei
Alisa Lepselter
Production Designer
Santo Loquasto
Music Arranger/ Conductor
Dick Hyman
©Magnolia Productions, Inc/Sweetland Films, B.V.
Production Company
A Jean Doumanian production
Executive Producer
J.E. Beaucaire
Co-executive Producers
Jack Rollins
Charles H. Joffe
Letty Aronson
Richard Brick
Production Co-ordinator
Kimberly N. Fajen
Unit Production Managers
Margo Myers
Richard Brick
Location Manager
Drew Dillard
Post-production Co-ordinator
Katherine Belsey
Assistant Directors
Richard Patrick
Lisa Janowski
Brian York
Script Supervisor
Kay Chapin
Juliet Taylor
Laura Rosenthal
Patricia Kerrigan
Camera Operator
Michael Green
Visual Effects Supervisor
Tom Rosseter
Visual Effects Producer
Camille Geier
Digital Artist
Scott Roscoe David
Special Effects Co-ordinators
John Ottesen
Ron Ottesen
Glenn Lloyd
Sign Designer
Mark Bachman
Art Director
Tom Warren
Set Decorator
Jessica Lanier
Master Scenic Artist
James Sorice
Costume Designer
Laura Cunningham Bauer
Wardrobe Supervisors
Barrett Hong
Suzanne Pettit
Rosemarie Zurlo
Eva Polywka
Milton Buras
Stephen G. Bishop
Effects House
Solo Guitar:
Howard Alden
Rhythm Guitar:
Bucky Pizzarelli
Ken Peplowski
Kelly Friesen
Ted Sommer
Additional Players
Dick Hyman
Joel Helleny
Byron Stripling
Joe Wilder
Jerome Richardson
Chuck Wilson
Music Recording Engineer
Roy B. Yokelson
Music Recording Supervisor
Walt Levinsky
Solo Guitar:
Howard Alden
Rhythm Guitar:
Bucky Pizzarelli
Ted Sommer
"When Day Is Done", "Avalon", Liszt's "Liebestraum No. 3" - Django Reinhardt; "Clarinet Marmalade" - Ted Lewis' Orchestra; "Speak to Me of Love (Parlez-moi d'amour)", "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", "Twelfth Street Rag", "Sweet Sue, Just You" - Howard Alden; "Mystery Pacific", "Limehouse Blues", "I'll See You in My Dreams", "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)" - Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kelly Friesen; "Out of Nowhere" - Dick Hyman, Joe Wilder, Kelly Friesen; "Sweet Georgia Brown", - Howard Alden, James Chirillo, Kelly Friesen, Ken Peplowski, Ted Sommer, "After You've Gone" - Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, "Viper Mad" - Sidney Bechet; "Indiana (Back Home Again)" - Red Nichols; "Aloha Oe" - Dick Monday; "Abide by Me" - Mary Stout; "All of Me" - Carol Woods, Howard Alden, Buck Pizzarelli, Kelly Friesen, Ken Peplowski, Ted Sommer; "Caravan" - Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra; "Old Fashioned Love", "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)", "3:00 AM Blues" - Howard Alden, Kelly Friesen, Joel Helleny, Dick Hyman, Ken Peplowski, Jerome Richardson, Ted Sommer, Byron Stripling, Joe Wilder, Chuck Wilson, "Just a Gigolo", "Shine", "There'll Be Some Changes Made", "The Peanut Vendor", "UnfaithfulWoman" - Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kelly Friesen, Ken Peplowski, Ted Sommer; "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)" - Ambrose and His Orchestra; "Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down" - Bix Beiderbecke; "Hot Lips" - Henry Busse and His Orchestra; "Lulu's Back in Town" - Dick Hyman, Kelly Friesen, Ted Sommer
Frank J. Graziadei
Production Sound Mixer
Les Lazarowitz
Re-recording Mixer
Lee Dichter
Supervising Sound Editor
Robert Hein
Dialogue Editor
Sylvia Menno
Sound Effects Editor
Glenfield Payne
Jay Peck
Marko Costanzo
Recording Engineer:
George Lara
Frank Kern
Bruce Pross
Stunt Co-ordinator
Peter Bucossi
Dawn Animal Agency
Anthony LaPaglia
Al Torrio
Brian Markinson
Bill Shields
Gretchen Mol
Samantha Morton
Sean Penn
Emmet Ray
Uma Thurman
James Urbaniak
John Waters
Mr Haynes
Tony Darrow
Brad Garrett
Joe Bedloe
Vincent Guastaferro
Sid Bishop
Denis O'Hare
Molly Price
Kaili Vernoff
Woody Allen
Ben Duncan
Daniel Okrent
A.J. Pickman
Dan Moran
Chris Bauer
Ace, pool player
Constance Shulman
Hazel, hooker 1
Kellie Overbey
Iris, hooker 2
Darryl Alan Reed
Mark Damon Johnson
Ron Cephas Jones
Steve Bargonetti
Benjamin Franklin Brown
musician friends
Vince Giordano
ball player 1
Emme Kemp
Clark Gayton
Marcus McLaurine
jam session musicians
Carolyn Saxon
Drummond Erskine
Joe Ambrose
Joe Rigano
Dennis Stein
Dick Ruth, club owner
Nat Hentoff
Katie Hamill
Carole Bayeux
Rita, opium party hostess
Paula Parrish
Cory Solar
Lexi Egz
Yvette Mercedes
Peter Leung
party guests
William Addy
master of ceremonies
Dick Monday
Chester Weems
Mary Stout
Felicity Thomson, amateur singer
Dick Mingalone
Mr. Spoons
spoon player
Carol Woods
Helen Minton
Josh Mowery
movie director
Fred Goehner
William Weston
Eddy Davis
bass player 2
Ralph Pope
Douglas McGrath
Jerome Richardson
Earl P. McIntyre
James Williams
Frank Wellington Wess
Al Bryant
club musicians
Ray Garvey
club manager
Sally Placksin
Sally Jillian
Lola Pashalinski
Blanche's friend
Simon Wettenhall
Orange Kellin
Brooks Giles III
jam session musicians
Alfred Sauchelli Jr
Ned, pool player
Michael Bolus
Lynch, bar room friend
Mick O'Rourke
John P. McLaughlin
holdup men
Chuck Lewkowicz
police officer
Rick Mowat
flat tire man
Ted Wilkins
gas station proprietor
Michael Sprague
Django Reinhardt
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
8,585 feet
95 minutes 23 seconds
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Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011