Buddy Rich or Bill Evans? It’s like asking if you prefer Tom Clancy or Henry James. Not that there’s anything wrong with Buddy Rich or Tom Clancy, just that they’re not very filling, all shiny surfaces. So when Whiplash holds up Rich as its exemplar, it’s a shrug. Now, I really liked Whiplash, and it even gained some jazz cred with its use of Caravan (made famous by Duke Ellington, and later Art Blakey), but it wasn’t a jazz movie so much as a monster movie. Jazz biopics are an exceedingly rare beast, although I see at least two in the works, one with Don Cheadle as Miles Davis, another with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker. At least those two names are relatively well-known to audiences, but Joe Albany in Low Down? I was the jazz buyer in record stores for 15 years, and I barely knew the name.
Low Down is Albany’s story, but the casting is what really makes this a winner. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Deadwood) as Albany. Elle Fanning (Super 8, Ginger and Rosa) as his daughter. Dream cast so far, and Glenn Close (Big Chill, Fatal Attraction) as his mother, and Flea(!) (Red Hot Chili Peppers) as his close friend are also outstanding. Albany played bebop, and came of age in its flowering – 1946 New York City, even playing briefly with Charlie Parker and Davis. But the movie centers around his life in the 60’s, specifically his close relationship with his daughter, and his life-long heroin addiction (known to jazz aficionados as the curse of Charlie Parker, since so many jazz musicians thought that if they shot heroin, like Parker, they might play as brilliantly, too). The scenes between Hawkes and Fanning are breathtaking, as if the two actors really were father and daughter. Their emotional shadings are calibrated so beautifully that I didn’t want those scenes to end. Close and Flea(!) were excellent as well, as was Peter Dinklage (Station Agent, Game of Thrones) in a small part.
Both Hawkes and Fanning are deadly serious actors, always reaching and searching in carefully chosen parts. We should be thankful for actors like them, few and far between, who could undoubtedly choose big-money roles, but instead hew closely to dramas that give them challenging and fulfilling work. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 3/10/15