Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sundance ’14: Low Down

Jazz musicians have families like anybody else.  Some even produce musical dynasties, like the Marsalises and the O’Farrills. For many though, the inconsistent nature of gigging is a stressful fact of jazz family life.  Heroin addiction adds a further destabilizing element.  Amy Albany understands this all too well.  Her memoir tells a stark tale of drug abuse, bebop, and paternal love.  Jazz pianist and former Charlie Parker sideman Joe Albany’s chaotic parenting gets the biopic treatment in Jeff Preiss’s Low Down, which screens during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Tragically, Joe Albany was arguably the more responsible of Amy Albany’s parents, but that is saying a lot. While Amy Albany’s absentee alcoholic mother only fleetingly appears in her life, Joe makes a good faith effort at fatherhood.  Sadly, Hollywood in the early 1970’s is a tough scene for working jazz musicians, but it is easy to score junk there.

Clearly, Joe Albany had a good rapport with his daughter, but he was enslaved to his habits. Right from the start, a pattern emerges.  Resolving to do right by his daughter and parole officer, Albany will clean up, accepting gigs beneath his stature for the sake of his family commitments.  Yet, his inevitable benders consistently undo all his good intentions.  During these periods, Amy Albany moves back in with her gruff but eternally patient grandmother.

Having served as the cinematographer of Bruce Weber’s Chet Baker documentary, Let’s Get Lost, Preiss is no stranger to the effects of long term heroin use—but he has nothing on Amy Albany, who co-adapted her book for the big screen.  It is not pretty in either film.  However, Albany’s source memoir is even more harrowing in its depiction of drug use. Still, the wreckage wrought by Albany’s addiction is all too believable and realistic on-screen.

Right, so this is not exactly happy stuff, but John Hawkes’ performance as Joe Albany is quite remarkable.  He perfectly captures the cadences and mannerisms of a dissipated musician and looks comfortable enough behind the piano. It is painful witnessing his long slow process of self-destruction, precisely because he so vividly brings out the more edifying aspects of Albany’s personality.  Playing a bit against type, Glenn Close is rather earthy and compelling as his tough working class mother.  Lena Headey also makes a strong impression in her brief scenes as Sheila Albany.  Unfortunately, Elle Fanning is too bland and retiring as the teenaged Albany.

Low Down is a quality period production that painstakingly recreates the desperate seediness of Hollywood in the 1970’s.  It might be hard to watch, but it sounds great, thanks to extensive archival recordings from Albany and his contemporaries, as well as some original jazz themes composed and recorded by Ohad Talmor. Depressing but well intentioned and deeply humanistic, Low Down is recommended for bebop fans when it screens again today (1/23) and tomorrow (1/24) in Park City, as well as this Sunday (1/25) at Sundance Resort, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.