By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media
“Low Down,” a perfectly cast film that depicts a moody world of jazz musicians, drugs and self-destruction, is based on the memoir of Amy Albany, the daughter of jazz pianist Joe Albany, who played with names such as Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and who had a side gig as a heroin junkie, a habit that stalked him his entire life.
This is the first feature by Jeff Preiss, the cinematographer on Bruce Weber’s Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost.” His decision to shoot “Low Down” (the cinematographer is Christopher Blauvelt) in grainy 16mm accented by tones of amber and rust nicely evokes a specific day and time, a hazy mid-1970s Los Angeles of jazz musicians and broken dreams. But the evocative story, which at its core is a coming-of-age tale that mostly unfolds through Amy’s eyes, drifts a bit when it moves away from her perspective.
John Hawkes (who bears a striking resemblance to the real Albany) does his usual fine work portraying Albany as a loose and easygoing guy who loves his daughter and his music (he gained early acclaim as a bebop pianist) but can’t shake the demons that eventually will consume him. Fanning is heartbreaking as the daughter who tries to keep it all together and sometimes wonders “what it would be like to float like him.”
As the movie opens, teenage Amy is living a rollercoaster existence with her father in a Hollywood flophouse filled with an array of characters — junkies, prostitutes, artists — living on the edge. She hangs out with her father and his musician friends including the strung-out Hobbs (an impressive turn by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and loves listening to their jam sessions.
But Amy’s sunny disposition hides the underlying fear that her father will end up back in jail because of an unrelenting heroin addiction and an impatient parole officer. Her singer mother (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”), a barfly right out of a Charles Bukowski novel, shows up sporadically and flings caustic words in Amy’s direction. (Another “GOT” star, Peter Dinklage, has a cameo as a basement squatter in the flophouse.)
Nothing is romanticized in “Low Down.” About midway through the film, Albany skips out on his parole and leaves for a two-year stint in Europe, where jazz is better appreciated and where he hopes to stay clean. Amy is left in the care of her loving grandmother (a sturdy turn by Glenn Close), the only stable influence in her young life. She knows she has somehow failed her son but is intent on helping Amy grow into a smart, caring and confident young woman.
Albany records several albums in Europe until he is deported after a marijuana bust. Back home, he tries to stay clean but old habits return. Amy’s true coming-of-age happens as she realizes, after years of this up-and-down battle, nothing she does can save her father. It is a striking moment, but one that does not reduce the love she has for this damaged man.
Oscilloscope Laboratories presents a film directed by Jeff Preiss and written by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien, based on Albany’s memoir. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for drug use, language and sexual content). Opens Friday at AMC River East 21.