By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)
I will admit being unfamiliar with jazz pianist Joe Albany prior to watching Jeff Preiss’ fact-based drama Low Down, yet the late musician’s career trajectory seems depressingly familiar. Credited as a be-bop pioneer, he made his bones in the 1940s, accompanying the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, he suffered an early “lost period” due to heroin, and spent most of the 50s and 60s chasing the dragon and collecting ex-wives. He came out of seclusion in the 70s, recording a number of albums through the decade (still battling smack). He died alone, in 1988. Oddly enough, that was the same year trumpeter Chet Baker died. Baker, whose career was beset by similar woes, was profiled in Bruce Weber’s outstanding 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. One of its most compelling elements was the moody, noirish cinematography…by a Mr. Jeff Preiss.
Preiss’ film (which marks his feature-length directing debut) covers a 3-year period of Albany’s life in the mid-70s, when he was living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his teenage daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). Albany (John Hawkes) is struggling to stay focused on the work, jamming with his trumpet-playing buddy Hobbs (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, giving us a taste of his first instrument). Amy is cheer leading for her Dad, doing her best to keep him on track. Speaking of tracks, a surprise visit from his parole officer reveals Dad isn’t quite holding things together, and he’s whisked off to stir. Amy goes to stay with her grandmother (Glenn Close) until Joe is released. Dad still has issues. Amy tries to keep sunny, but it’s tough to be Pollyanna when your social circle is surging with hookers, junkies, drug dealers and, er, porno star dwarves (Peter Dinklage!).
The screenplay (by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien) is based on Albany’s memoir about life with her father. Albany’s recollections about the extended family of eccentrics she encountered inject the film with a Tales of the City vibe. The naturalistic performances and Preiss’ cinema verite approach also recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama, The Panic in Needle Park, an episodic character study about a community of junkies. Some may find the deliberate pacing stupefying, waiting for something to “happen”, but as John Lennon sang, “life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Taken as a slice of life, Low Down just lets it happen…improvising on grace notes while keeping it in perfect time.