What is it about great musicians and addictions? Maybe they sense or feel something at a more expanded level than the rest of us mortals, and when it comes to recreational activity, well, they want to fly high then, as well. Or maybe you have to be somewhat selfish and self-involved to even develop the talent of a great musician, and it’s that self-involvement that insulates from feeling sorry too much about the effects the addictive behavior has on everybody else. Or maybe there’s no relationship at all; it’s just that some folks are prone to addiction, and we know about them because they’re famous for something else, like musicianship. Or another form of artistry, like acting. It’s still a tragedy to misuse all that talent, and abuse the trust of loved ones. And it’s that last part that hurts the most in “Low Down.”
Joe Albany played gigs with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Even if you’re not a jazz aficionado, you can appreciate the stratospheric level of musicianship here. These guys have music coming out of their pores. And they play it in a way that few can even duplicate, much less create. John Wilkes is very impressive in the lead role – even his piano playing is mesmerizing. He seems like a sweet man that wouldn’t hurt a flea, but his addiction drives him to irresponsibility, even abandonment. He has a lovely daughter, Amy Jo (Elle Fanning), who just adores and idolizes her dad. She’s so proud of his accomplishments. But he’s a mess. He’s in and out of prison. He “forgets” to meet with his parole officer, which gets him in more trouble. His ex-wife, Sheila (Lena Headey) is a stumbling drunk who occasionally visits Joe’s ramshackle apartment, puts more false hope into Amy Jo, and inevitably shuffles away into her own personal oblivion.
We feel for the innocent adolescent Amy Jo as she tries her best to be the only responsible person in this hellhole she lives in, but it’s more burden than any teenager should have to bear. The little kid down the hall asks for help with his mother who’s passed out with a needle stuck in her arm. The friendly neighborhood dwarf, Alain (Peter Dinklage) is nice to Amy Jo, but she discovers that he’s into making kinky films in his apartment and that understandably freaks her out. Her dad’s best friend, a fellow jazz musician, is also an addict – and worse, he brings the drug dealer along to visit while Amy Jo has to get lost for a while and wander aimlessly around the grimy streets, itself a tragedy waiting to happen.
When Joe Albany realizes that he’s on a treadmill he can’t seem to get off, he decides to flee to France. In the 1970s, America seems infatuated with rock ‘n’ roll, so maybe the Parisians would still appreciate his jazz. He leaves his daughter in the care of his mother, Gram (Glenn Close, who’s only 11 years older than Wilkes, so the casting doesn’t quite work). Gram is a flinty broad who likes watching televised boxing and isn’t afraid to apply the right cross to her wayward son’s face when she feels like he needs it. But she also co-dependently enables his dissolution.
The music is great in this film. But what’s on the screen is gritty, disheartening and difficult to watch, especially the systematic emotional abandonment of this sweet teenage girl who only longs for a little stability in her life. But that’s the one thing she’s least likely to get. The only good news is that the real Amy Jo Albany wrote and produced the movie, based on her book, so we can at least hope that grace prevailed in her life, despite the gracelessness all around her.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.