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Low Down can be reduced to a simple, well-trodden dual motif: talent and track marks. This time it’s a jazz pianist, one who’s out of prison on parole in 1970s Hollywood, living in a ramshackle hotel with his teenage daughter while trying to stay sober and revive his career. The girl’s mother, another has-been, is largely out of the picture, but when she does show up, she sweats alcohol and bile. Their wise-beyond-her-years child loves them anyway and is forever hopeful that they will change, but ultimately, she spends a lot of time crying.
Familiar, right? What if it’s a true story? Does that suddenly make it a movie you want to see again?
Unless you’re a Joe Albany obsessive, probably not. Even in that case, stick to the records or the biography the film is based on, written by that long-suffering daughter, Amy Albany (she and Topper Lilien adapted the screenplay; Jeff Preiss directs), because Low Down hits the same notes as every other musician biopic out there.
The performances, luckily, keep the film watchable when the plot doesn’t. John Hawkes took over the lead when Mark Ruffalo dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, and when you glimpse photos of the real Joe Albany, you can’t imagine him played by anyone else. Hawkes has embodied dirtbags (Winter’s Bone), cult leaders (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and an impossibly genial paraplegic (The Sessions), and here he transforms again into a usually joyous, always loving, but nonetheless troubled heroin addict who can’t always control his demon.
This is all obvious from the opening scene: As Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) watches him from a window, she mentions his achievements in voiceover and says, “I, too, was in awe of his talent, and I loved him out of all proportion.” Down on the street, Dad trots across, waving to her with a gleeful smile before getting manhandled and handcuffed because he missed a parole meeting. But his office checks his arms: no fresh tracks; all is well.
Naturally, all doesn’t stay well, and Fanning carries the bulk of the film, as it’s told from Amy-Jo’s perspective. She’s at the perfect age to play the girl her mother named after two Little Women characters: grown-up enough to recognize when a quick hit is underway or it’s time to distract a young son of another junkie, but still believably childlike when her face lights up with ready giggles (which makes Preiss’ one long shot of the nearly 5’8” Fanning a distracting misstep). As she’s already proven in her young career, Fanning can flip through emotions as easily as most flip through a magazine, a talent perhaps best demonstrated in Super 8, in which her character had to slip into and out of “actor” mode while making a movie with her friends.
Also starring is Glenn Close as Joe’s no-bullshit mother and Peter Dinklage as a fellow hotel resident whose inclusion is a question mark, particularly when Amy-Jo kisses him. (Dinklage’s reaction is, actually, the embodiment of a question mark.) Nearly all of the characters here—besides Amy-Jo and her grandmother, obviously meant to be saints—range from pitiable to loathsome, with selfishness and self-hatred as common traits. The music, jazz of the ’40s through the ’70s, is terrific, however, even if the film suggests that it’s even more melty-butterish when you’re swingin’ with smack. And the dingy look of retro Hollywood is expertly captured.
But there’s nothing revelatory about Joe Albany’s cinematic story, and its familiarity ensures you’ll tune out early. (Perhaps to discreetly reference IMDb to check Fanning’s height. Ahem.) Biopics like Ray or Walk the Line have already mined this territory, and they did so much more successfully. Low Down is even hands-down trumped by Walk Hard—and when your sincere fictionalization is less enjoyable than a parody, that’s a real drag.
Low Down opens at E Street Cinema on Nov. 7.