Published December 1, 1999
Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown could be said to be a loving, autumnal tribute to the two great passions of its director’s life outside of the cinema, namely, jazz and psychotherapy. True, the movie contains no scenes involving therapy, nor even any reference to it, but its subtext is the fundamental therapeutic assumption of vulgar Freudianism, at least as it has emerged in the popular culture of America at the turn of the century: never suppress (or, as it is usually rendered, “repress”) your feelings.
Set in the 1930s, the film takes the form of a mock documentary about the life of a fictional jazzman of the period, a guitarist called Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). A running in-joke has Ray so admiring and at the same time so jealous of the great (real) jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, that he faints on the one occasion when they met. He, Ray, is generally considered the second-greatest jazz guitarist in the world, but “Nate Drummond preferred me.” Thereafter he goes around saying “On guitar, no one can touch me. Except for this gypsy in France. But mostly I’m untouchable” or “Some people think I’m the greatest guitar player who ever lived…There’s this gypsy in France.” Ray’s colorful life in the happily mixed-race, quasi-underground world of small bars and clubs when jazz was still authentic and rather disreputable obviously appeals to Mr. Allen’s sense of romance.
The common ground of jazz and therapy is that both involve giving free rein to one’s emotional individuality — though in therapy it is easier to go beyond the point at which emotion ceases to be individual or interesting and becomes merely a common human property, for instance in feelings of “insecurity.” Emmet Ray seems to have few of these. When one of his many girlfriends tells him that he can’t let his feelings out and therefore can’t truly care for anyone else, he replies with genuine bewilderment: “You say that like it’s something bad.” To another girlfriend, the redoubtable Blanche (Uma Thurman) he states the same view as a general principle: “If you let your insides out, you’re finished.”
Apart from sex, his two favorite things to do with his girlfriends is to go shooting rats at the dump and to watch trains. True, some of them are put off by this (“Shootin’ rats at the dump is not my idea of a good time”), but one of the advantages of living in the 1930s seems to have been that women were more compliant about things like that. Blanche, who fancies herself a writer positively enjoys it for the insight it gives her into Emmet: “Do you get a bigger kick doing this [i.e. shooting rats] or stealing small objects,” she asks him. She is an early Freudian and expresses her interest in Ray by saying that he “has a violent side but it all turns to passion in his music” where there is “no sublimation.” To Ray himself she says, a little improbably: “With you I feel like I’m looking into the Heart of Darkness.”
But soon her professional interest is piqued by another Heart of Darkness and she runs off with a gangster called Al Torrey (Anthony La Paglia) who also gets her sympathetic ear. “Everybody I ever rubbed out deserved it,” he confides in Blanche.
“That’s so colorful,” she replies. “And what do you think of when you’re rubbing someone out?”
In the end it doesn’t matter. The love of Emmet Ray’s life turns out to have been the mute laundress, Hattie (Samantha Morton), whom he meets at an amusement park in New Jersey and who puts up — mutely, of course — with his appalling ill treatment until he dumps her for Blanche. She returns to her laundry and marries someone else. When Ray comes back for her and finds her already taken, he has no words to express his feelings, or scarcely any realization that he has feelings. But nothing is ever the same for him afterwards, and the story ends with the pseudo-documentarian announcing that the second-greatest jazz guitarist in the world seems to have just “faded away.”
Woody Allen knows that jazzmen in the 1930s were, like everybody else in the 1930s, much less given to talking about their feelings than we are today, but in the end I think he’s not entirely sure what he thinks of the fact. On the one hand, the emotional reticence of someone like Emmet Ray is shown as having wrecked his life and, ultimately, even his art. The last we see of him he is smashing his guitar in a fit of anger. On the other hand, reserving one’s interior life for the music may have been what made the dear dead world of 1930s jazz what it was. Besides, the idea of having a devoted and uncomplaining mute as a female companion obviously appeals to him too. Could there be just a touch of self-mockery here? Insofar as you can believe that, you will find this film worth seeing.