Portrait of an Artist: John Hawkes Plays a Tragic Jazz Pianist in ‘Low Down’

Despite the good work on view, be forewarned: 'Low Down' is slow, sad and relentlessly depressing.

A struggling musician is down and out in Low Down
A struggling musician is down and out in Low Down

Fighting through the pain and tears of a miserable childhood to find inner peace and even a pinch of happiness is the stuff of so many memoirs. From what I’ve read and observed, I am wondering if there was ever a happy, well-adjusted child of a jazz musician. An excellent cast of top-rung actors and a sincere attempt to set the record straight about growing up miserable in the world of drugs and jazz in the mid-’70s is the focus of Low Down, a well-meaning but desultory descent into darkness based on a memoir of the same name by Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of Joe Albany, the great jazz pianist who died in 1988 at age 63. The book, published in 2003, was subtitled Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood, and that just about covers it.

(2/4 stars)

Written by: Topper Lilien and Amy Albany
Directed by:
Jeff Preiss
Starring: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning and Glenn Close
Running time: 114 min.

John Hawkes, the lanky actor with the lived-in face who electrified audiences as the paralyzed poet Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, is back with another captivating performance as Joe Albany, who worked with some of the jazz icons of his day—Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Clifford Brown and others—but never achieved the same level of success because of his losing battle with heroin addiction. Respected by some, revered by others, he made only one album, which is today considered a collector’s item. Much of the music in the film comes from that disc, and it sets the mood hauntingly. What a treat to hear jazz classics such as “‘Round Midnight” and “Lush Life” that melt into the listener’s mind conveying more atmosphere than any screenplay, although this one was co-written by Ms. Albany herself, so the authenticity is palpable. So is the filthy, one-room Hollywood tenement where an adoring child loved a self-destructive father regardless of how much time she was forced to spend alone.

Joe Albany was not a bad cat. He didn’t hurt anybody. He was just an irresponsible father. When he accumulated a bit of scratch, there were evenings at home with horror movies and Chinese takeout. Then in the morning, the girl would enter the bathroom to brush her teeth and pick up used hypodermic needles off the toilet seat. He lived, ate and heard music in everything from the traffic to the bedsprings, and his daughter considered him a hero in every aspect of his life except the addiction that eventually killed him. Low Down is partially a biopic about his downward spiral, kneaded into a riff on raw memories as she grows from nervous child to mature and independent woman. Elle Fanning is heartbreaking as the girl, watching her father from a window as he’s beaten by drug dealers or dragged way by cops with the evening’s groceries smashed against the curb, reflecting myriad emotions behind clear blue eyes that have seen more than anyone her age should even know about. An unrecognizable Glenn Close brilliantly portrays her battered, chain-smoking grandmother—a hard case herself and a poor choice to supervise a teenager, only occasionally insisting that the girl go to school. It’s hard to believe Ms. Albany maintained such an air of undiluted optimism when she had so little joy in her life. She even slept in the bathtub.

The kid exists in such a depraved slum environment it’s like growing up in a circus sideshow. Home is a derelict flophouse in the Los Angeles tenderloin that is partially condemned. When she doesn’t find her father passed out with a needle in his arm, she’s left alone while he’s in prison or rehab. Occasionally there’s a drop in from her mother (Lena Headey), a mean-spirited alcoholic slut who offers no security and no solace for a daughter she can’t bear to be around. Her only friend is the little boy next door who spends a lot of time on the floor in the hallway while his mother is turning tricks. Her one possibility for affection from a gentlemanly dwarf (Peter Dinklage) ends when she discovers him making porno films in the building’s cellar. And the girl’s first boyfriend is an epileptic drummer who comes to a rough end himself.

First-time director Jeff Preiss, a former cinematographer who gathered extensive experience with grunge shooting Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s documentary about heroin-addicted jazz legend Chet Baker, provides just the right shadowy substance and John Hawkes has the tight, drawn look of someone fueled by something unhealthy. But the story is familiar, the screenplay never explains the demons that drove Joe Albany to trash his talent, and the life of a reckless junkie eventually grows tedious. Despite the good work on view, be forewarned: Low Down is slow, sad and relentlessly depressing.

Portrait of an Artist: John Hawkes Plays a Tragic Jazz Pianist in ‘Low Down’