Friday, 12 February 2016

Low Down

In 2003, A.J. Albany wrote one of the most honest, brave and inspiring memoirs of our times. ‘Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood’ was Amy-Jo’s recollection of life with her drug-addicted single father, the great jazz pianist Joe Albany. This raw and gripping portrait of childhood and life was harsh but full of heart, and a book I could not put down – I finished it in one sitting, and then read it again! I’ve also been lucky enough to talk to Amy-Jo online, and she’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. So, I was delighted to see that a film was being made, as those of you who follow my writing will know I’m a sucker for a musician biopic. Unfortunately, the film is one big missed opportunity. 


Out now on DVD, Low Down is the directorial debut for Jeff Preiss and unfortunately means a rather rocky start for his career behind the camera. Following A.J.’s story fairly faithfully, Low Down tells the tale of her life growing up with her father, jazz pianist Joe Albany (a spellbindingly good John Hawkes), while he battles drug addiction and the general poverty of the 1960s and 70s jazz scene. Throughout her childhood she spends time with a variety of people, including porn-star dwarf Alain (Peter Dinklage), her alcoholic mother (Lena Headey) and her grandma (Glenn Close). As you can see, the cast is solid – topped off by a great understated performance from Elle Fanning as A.J., a girl whose love and loyalty for her father is almost constantly challenged by his self-destructive behaviour – but even this immense talent across the board can’t save the film from its flaws.


Firstly, and most offensively, Low Down removes the heart and soul from A.J.’s story. For the most part, the film goes down the unoriginal and predictable route in its delivery and makes Low Down just another film about a musician. Usually, I wouldn’t mind this – like I said, I love a musician biopic – but with a source material as rich and powerful as A.J.’s memoir to work with, they could’ve done so much more. The father-and-daughter dynamic of the book seems largely ignored, while the harsher moments take the majority of the screen-time giving little focus to the tender, touching moments from the book. Low Down isn’t bad when scenes are playing out, like in the book, from A.J.’s perspective. But unfortunately, too much time is spent away from her, and Low Down becomes a mostly depressing and bleak story of addiction and poverty. A.J.’s book was also unique in its often fragment-style approach, telling a variety of what sometimes felt like self-contained short stories about people she encountered and things she saw. This approach doesn’t work in the film, with some scenes and subplots seeming to sporadically change with a feel of complete aimlessness. Maybe this approach is supposed to represent jazz – an almost improvisational, rhythm-shifting delivery. But it doesn’t work, especially with such a phenomenal book as the source.

Speaking of jazz, though; Low Down has one of the finest soundtracks in the past few years - at least, if you like jazz. Composed of Albany’s own compositions and those of Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach alongside an era-authentic sounding score from Ohad Talmor, the soundtrack evokes a mood and feel that, along with the 16mm film cinematography, makes for a very stylish piece of work. It’s just a shame that Low Down is a big case of style over substance. Low Down is a disappointing adaptation of A.J.’s powerful memoir – so much so, that it needn’t carry the same title. This is really just a standard biopic of Joe Albany, and if that was the intention, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But to watch it and consider it an adaptation of ‘Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood’ just makes you want to read the vastly superior book again.


In conclusion, Low Down is a rather underwhelming film. If you have any interest in the story, find a copy of the incredible book, stick the soundtrack on and escape into the world of A.J.’s childhood. While the film features some phenomenal performances and a breathtakingly good soundtrack, it’s still a rather aimless and heartless mess. Read the book.

Low Down unfortunately doesn’t hit the right notes, and earns 2/5.

★★☆☆☆


Sam Love


Low Down at CeX


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