Low Down – A Rare Jazz Film that Looks and Feels Real

in 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Marita Nyrhinen

When talking about jazz films, Bird (1988) by Clint Eastwood, Round Midnight (1986) by Bertrand Tavernier and Kansas City (1996) by Robert Altman are usually the first films to come up. Low down (in competition in KVIFF 2014) by the American cinematographer, director and producer Jeff Preiss is a new and wonderful addition to this genre.

Low Down is a biographical film about jazz pianist Joe Albany, who played with such jazz icons as saxophone players Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and bass players Charles Mingus and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The film is based on the memoir written by daughter Amy-Jo: Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood (2003), in which she tells of her father’s life, music and drug addiction. Joe died in 1988, when he was only 63 years old.

Amy-Jo Albany co-wrote the screenplay with Topper Lilien. She also followed the shooting closely, taking care of even the smallest details such as what kind of clothes people are wearing or how the apartment looks on the screen. It is obvious that the film is about the daughter (Elle Fanning) as much as it is about Joe (John Hawkes). Following her father’s life, Amy experiences a difficult life as she grows to be a young woman in the marginal society.

Preiss directed a beautiful and convincing jazz film about the relationship between father and daughter. Though it takes place in 1970’s Hollywood, the drama is far from a Hollywood film. Low down portrays a colourful and moving picture of the drug addicted artist. Despite playing with famous artists, Joe Albany never became famous himself, and Preiss delicately conveys how the promising career never really took off because of the time wasted in jails and sanatoriums. Acting and music playing are synchronized beautifully. Low down seizes in exceptional way the reality of the era, which, no doubt, many musicians in those days shared.

Music is one of the main issues of the film. Composer and arranger Ohad Talmor served as the musical supervisor. The production design includes covers of many famous jazz records, like Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis, and the soundtrack is filled with their music.

Albany himself didn’t make many records. He finally had an opportunity to record in the studio in 70’s. John Hawkes brings to Albany’s character a lot of humanity and humility. He has had a long career as an actor, but he is also a musician. It is important, that music films look real, and acting is rarely possible without knowing the mechanism of the instrument that you are supposed to be playing in film. In that aspect too Preiss and Hawkes cooperation is successful: the music playing looks real.

Yong Elle Fanning is an extremely fresh actress on the big screen. Her performance is very sensitive and the camera loves her. No wonder that she won the Best Actress Award for her role as Albany’s daughter In the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Edited by Yael Shuv