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Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Review

Given the amount of films director Woody Allen has crafted and thrown into the public over the past few decades, it’s very likely that you’ll be coupled with a film that released in the year of your birth. Sweet and Lowdown was that film for me, a mock style biopic of a fictional musician played by Sean Penn. It doesn’t sound like the most interesting work Allen has to offer, and it’s certainly far from it. Even in a period of mulling about and trying to recapture his glory days, his consistency as a director can be seen clear as day in his more mundane, mediocre films. Sweet and Lowdown provides a passable, farcical air to it for much of the running time, and it’s all thanks to a few tropes we’re used to.

I can’t say I was entirely sold on the idea of a quasi-biopic tale documenting Emmet Ray and his rise and fall from success, detailing the many lovers he had along the path of stardom. It’s not an interesting premise, but at least it falls into a category of interest Allen has outside of making varyingly mediocre films and writing hellish amounts of prose and screenplays. His love of jazz music is somewhat touched upon here, and Penn works furiously hard at bringing such a notion to life. We don’t have a film that exudes on jazz per say, but one that plants itself firmly in independent musicians struggling to hit the big leagues.

We once again find ourselves tracking a story through Allen’s love for the past, a relatively modern one of the American Great Depression. You’d think for such a setting that Ray would be a character resolutely resembling of this time period, but Penn doesn’t provide me with enough stunning scenes to mediate further on such an idea. He gives us a solid performance of course, but it isn’t one that left me hungry for more. I was completely satisfied with his leading role, one that combines impressive guitar skills and even further impressive abilities in the field of acting. Together they should form an unstoppable force, but in this instance they create something that struggles to hold my attention.

By all means this is likely the fault of Allen’s direction. At this point in his career, and at this point in my watching of his works, I was completely used to his tropes, cliché and charms. They had ran their course by this time, with Sweet and Lowdown suffering the same problem you may face when eating too much chocolate. That sickly, overbearing idea that you’ve gone too far and having anymore of it would end your relationship with a once beloved item rather quickly. Sweet and Lowdown was on the cusp of being that sickly feeling, but thanks to some wondrous supporting performances from the likes of Uma Thurman, John Waters and Samantha Morton, we can avoid this somewhat.

Sweet and Lowdown is certainly not Allen’s best, nor is it his worst. It is slap bang in the middle. There are equal films better and worse than this one. Much of the films success can be pinned on both the direction from Allen and the performance of Penn. Both do as much as necessary, but struggle to go beyond that of what we were already expecting. Predictable, but a somewhat good time for those that needed a little extra fixture of Allen’s superb directing abilities.

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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