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Sweet and Swinging



*Sweet and Lowdown (PG-13)
Columbia TriStar

For a brief time in high school, I had a crush on one of the jazz dudes. These were a bunch of unwashed 16-year-olds who spent lunch hours comparing various vintages of Dave Brubeck albums and discussing which session of "Take Five" best demonstrated the greatness of the master.

In order to impress my chosen one, I did my level best to bone up on jazz history, listening to Boston's WBUR jazz show and faithfully copying down the long list of musicians that the DJ would mention at the end of each tune. Sometimes the list of session musicians would be longer than the pieces themselves. A couple of months of that and I decided that such arcana was best left to the hard core. (I turned my sights to a "Dungeons and Dragons" player instead.)

Woody Allen, an accomplished jazz musician, would have been right at home among my high school's jazz guys, but you needn't be part of that cerebral clique to appreciate Allen's new film Sweet and Lowdown. Instead, a funny take on the jazz world, fine performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, and a hefty dose of great guitar playing make this film both entertaining and accessible.

Sweet and Lowdown takes the form of a faux documentary of an imaginary jazz guitarist, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Ray is imminently unlikable. He is egotistical, selfish, vain and shallow. His favorite extracurricular is shooting rats at the dump. He is cruel and irresponsible to everyone around him, most especially his mute girlfriend Hattie (Samantha Morton). Indeed, he is so despicable that he's downright funny at times. His sole redeeming characteristic is that, as he would tell everyone he met, he is a great guitar player. Probably the greatest guitar player of the 1930s save one -- gypsy legend Django Reinhardt. Ray is so obsessed with the genius of Reinhart that every time he comes face to face with his rival, Ray faints dead away.

Sean Penn delivers a marvelous, funny and nuanced characterization of this jazz second best. The man has such control over so many muscles in his body and face that he brings remarkable subtlety to what might otherwise be a totally flat character. Although Penn did not play the guitar himself, he learned the fingering well enough to be very convincing, but after a few moments of assuring myself that his fingers were really going along with the terrific music, I gave up and just watched his face. Samantha Morton, who plays Ray's mute girlfriend Hattie, is just as subtle, reminiscent of the best of silent film stars.

For me, however, the real attraction of the film lies in its guise as documentary. A fictional character as irredeemable as Ray would be of no compelling interest whatsoever in a straight narrative film: He's unlikable at the start, he's terrible throughout the film, he's a still jerk at the end. Placed within the frame of the documentary, however, with knowledgeable commentary by real music critics and historians like Nat Hentoff, and suddenly the film is more about the larger jazz world than about Emmet Ray himself. Those learned commentaries from the talking heads, the obsession over which sessions were recorded when, the apocryphal stories about Chicago (or Saint Louis or Harlem or Kansas City) in the 1930s -- all are familiar to anyone with even a fleeting acquaintance of jazz.

Like all of Allen's work, a lot of Sweet and Lowdown is self-referential (although fortunately this time we are spared Allen's sometimes tiring neuroses). And therein lies the kick. Why would we want to see such a documentary? Because, according to the documentary frame, Ray was such a great musician. Why could we forgive him his excesses? Because he was such a great artist. How did he redeem himself? By being a great artist. How do we know him? By the great recordings that he left. No matter what a creep a guy may have been, we care about him because of the art he leaves behind. (Does this sound like a certain director we know?) Or, at least, a certain subset of the population cares about him, and that's enough. The rest of us can watch them spin the tale of Emmet Ray, and simply enjoy the ride.

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