By Mohamed Hassan
A series of blank stares and unquestionable acts in a sea of blaring jazz sets the tone for “Low Down,” a biopic directed by Jeff Preiss. Based on the life of notable jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), “Low Down” follows Amy-Jo Albany (Elle Fanning) and shows her perspective on her father’s growing drug addiction in the 1960s and 1970s era of jazz in LA. Just like Albany’s rocky relationship with drug addiction, this film bares a similar curse in its final form.
The film was shot in super 16mm on a handheld camera by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, which is apparent by the grainy, yellowish texture in every scene. Blauvelt does a tremendous job of limiting cuts and giving a very homey feeling to Amy-Jo’s perspective.
Unfortunately, many of the faults of the film fall in the narrative aspect rather than the technical side. Preiss’s lack of directorial experience is evident in his failure to produce a narrative that can hold the audience’s attention long enough before darting out on a tangent. A suitable example is when one of the film’s key quotes is presented and then immediately rendered irrelevant by the plot’s repetitive nature of Joe’s lapse into a heroin high.
It is fathomable to imagine Preiss didn’t have much to work with from Amy-Jo’s recollection, but this film seems to only paint an overwhelmingly negative image of the great Joe Albany. The film never opts to portray Joe’s internalized conflicts and his relationship with the music itself. The result is a series of shots of Amy-Jo’s consistently disappointed look.
However, Preiss should be praised for his dedication to preserving Albany’s music and perfectly maintaining the jazz vibe of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The film is strung together by a well-picked all-star cast. Hawkes does a fantastic job fulfilling the role of Joe at his most earnest moments to his darker more chilling scenes. Fanning had never played a role based on a real character and naturally fell short due to her limited spectrum of emotion on screen. Glenn Close is remarkable at playing the chain-smoking grandmother and Amy Jo’s only positive influence in life. Close hits every point of the spectrum portraying total inner peace while still being able to go as far as being the hell-raising mother.
There is no doubt that Blauvelt’s method of capturing the essence of Albany’s life created a unique well-respected product. Preiss also deserves credit for taking on a story that means a lot to Amy-Jo but should have put forth more effort to make it relatable to the audience. Like Amy-Jo’s disappointment with her father’s choices, this biopic leaves little room for positive reflection.
Mohamed Hassan is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.