Movie Review: “Low Down” Is Anything But

low down

Review by James McDonald

A look at the life of pianist Joe Albany from the perspective of his young daughter, as she watches him contend with his drug addiction during the 1960s and ’70s jazz scene.

Joe Albany was a revered American jazz pianist who was among the few white pianists to have played with Charlie Parker. He also played with Miles Davis. Throughout his life he struggled with substance abuse, succumbing to upper respiratory failure and cardiac arrest at the age of 63 in 1988. “Low Down” is based on the memoirs of Joe’s only daughter, Amy-Jo Albany, played by Elle Fanning in the movie. John Hawkes plays the legendary jazz pianist and the film concentrates on both of their lives. Amy idolized her father and even through his darkest periods of drug use and incarceration, she always stood by him.

The movie is set in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s and overall, it is a very ominous and depressing story. Joe’s constant heroin use assumes most of the film and the effect it has on his daughter Amy, who was only 11 years old at the time but the essential element throughout the entire movie, is Joe’s music. Listening to him, in both solo and ensemble settings, is pure euphoria, a combination of assembled melodic and harmonic proficiency. As we experience these moments, they are the only time in the movie when there materializes any chance of him escaping his narcotic nightmare but once the music ends, reality sets back in and you find yourself wanting the music to play forever.

John Hawkes is simply brilliant as Albany, a man who is constantly haunted between doing what is right and his utter helplessness when it comes to his drug dependence. He is a genius with a piano but not so much when he is away from it. Elle Fanning gives a hauntingly understated performance as Joe’s long-suffering daughter, at once, impressively confident given her situation and the different types of people that traverse in and out of Joe’s life and, by extension, hers but at the same time, genuinely vulnerable. Glenn Close plays Gram, Joe’s mother and as always, she is superb and chews up all of the scenery.

As an ensemble piece, “Low Down” is superb but each of the central characters have their individual moments and they have astonishing impact. This is a tormenting story, one that pulls you in and doesn’t let go but it more than makes up for its anguish with its riveting performances and accomplished directing by Jeff Preiss in his feature film directorial debut.

Opens in limited cities today.


James McDonald
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