January 24, 2014



No one can accuse LOW DOWN of attempting to glamorize the true story it tells.  Jeff Preiss’s first film as a director is a slow, grim dirge set in an underbelly of the jazz world in 1970s Los Angeles, and it’s been co-written (with Topper Lilien) and -produced (and based on the memoir by) Amy-Jo Albany, who is played in the film by Elle Fanning.  It’s the story of Jo (what she’s usually called) and her relationship during her early teens with her father Joe (John Hawkes), a brilliant jazz pianist who never got out from under his addictions to heroin, booze and bad decisions.

Father and daughter care about each other deeply, and Joe sincerely means to provide for Jo when her mother, the alcoholic jazz singer Sheila (Lena Headey) can’t, but his is not a story of redemption and recovery. Joe leaves Jo in the care of his mother (an effectively subdued Glenn Close) when he’s too strung-out, or when he heads to Europe in search of work and to get away from the authorities.  As much as she misses her father when he’s gone, those are some of the best times for Jo, because when he’s in town, she’s essentially left to fend for herself on skid row, living in hovels alongside hookers, other addicts and worse.  The times she cherishes, when Joe is performing and happy, are few and far between.  As the years pass, Jo comes close to entering the cycle of self-destructiveness herself, entering into a relationship with an epileptic musician (Caleb Landry Jones) that she’s too young to handle, and entertaining the notion of trying some of the same vices that have ruined both of her parents’ lives.

There’s a deep integrity to Low Down.  As a cinematographer, Preiss’s work includes the jazz documentaries Let’s Get Lost and Broken Noses, and it’s a world he captures beautifully.  (He’s chosen Christopher Blauvelt, who shot The Bling Ring, to work behind the camera.)  The clubs, late night parties and dilapidated residential hotels (the production design is by Elliot Hostetter, who has Spring Breakers among his credits) are convincing without being ostentatious about their period detail.

The sense of commitment to the truth of the story being told extends to the performances.  John Hawkes is a superb character actor, and he’s completely believable both as an inspired artist and a man weary of his own failures.  Fanning continues to be a remarkable screen presence, seemingly just a mainstream role or two away from being a major star, the kind of performer whose complex emotions seem to bleed through her skin.  Headey is only on screen briefly, but she has one powerhouse scene with Fanning that proves she doesn’t need the blonde wig or royal title of Queen Cersei to take control of the screen.  Even in smaller roles, people like Taryn Manning, Flea and Peter Dinklage are around to bring gravity to the proceedings.

Low Down is admirable in many ways, but it’s not very enjoyable to watch.  The trajectory of the story is straight down–we know that Jo will survive her youth to make this movie, but that’s decades away from the events we’re witnessing–and Preiss’s slow pacing (the editing is by Michael Saia, his first fiction feature as well) can make it feel monotonous.  Despite the specificity of these lives, we’ve all seen enough tales of addiction that we can see through all of Joe’s falsehoods and fantasies as soon as he utters them, and Jo is mostly just justifiably sad.  The passion and honesty that the filmmakers bring to the material doesn’t translate into a compelling narrative, and it’s hard not to distance oneself from the result.

Low Down, in a way, is exactly what festivals like Sundance are supposed to be there for, giving exposure to a serious work that otherwise might not attract public attention.  Even with that exposure, though, it’s likely to be a film for rarefied tastes.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."