Woody Allen is one of the world's best-known jazz aficionados, whether it's for playing the clarinet himself, or using jazz on his soundtracks - - most famously George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue at the deliriously evocative opening of Manhattan. But here, for the first time, Allen places jazz into the foreground of a movie.
In fact, Sweet And Lowdown could be mistaken for a first-class piece of muso trainspotting, as a succession of talking heads - - including Allen himself - - line up to tell the camera their apocryphal tales about the great Emmet Ray. About how he was lowered onto the stage sitting on a crescent moon, or took on a gangster who was sleeping with his wife, or fainted whenever Django Reinhardt played. It runs like a homage to a musician who changed Allen's life. Which is the film's greatest joke, because Emmet Ray never existed.
The guitarist is a fiction, although one with real-life antecedents, as many jazz musicians of the '30s were as scurrilous in life as they were inspired on stage. Sean Penn simply rolls them into one wonderful character, of who one admirer says approvingly: ""You are not only vain and egotistical. You have genuine crudeness"."
Compared to most of Allen's films, this has a tiny cast and hardly any plot to speak of, merely following Ray's tour through America. The result is a set of comic vignettes, focusing on a great jazzy milieu and two fine performances. With his dirty white suits and hapless demeanour, Penn's guitarist is more charming dolt thanenigmatic genius. Even the look on his face while playing, usually presented in films as artistic rapture, is infantile. It's a hilarious rendering of a tragic figure waiting to happen: a man whose inability to show his feelings prevents him from matching his beloved Django, and costs him the one true love of his life.
As the woman in question, Samantha Morton steals the show. Rather than be realistically mute, her portrayal is straight from cinema's silent era; an expressive, poignant comic waif, stuffing her face in every shot, and could easily be imagined alongside Chaplin. While Uma Thurman turns in a variation on her standard vamp, Penn and Morton both deservedly received Oscar nods.
Sweet And Lowdown belongs with the likes of The Purple Rose Of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway in the Allen catalogue - fizzy, fast-paced, eccentric period comedies, in which art clashes with life, and the balding bespectacled one leaves centre stage to others.
Not classic contemporary Woody Allen, but a funny, charming piece of period nostalgia, in which he indulges his greatest passion other than Manhattan. Penn displays his versatility again, while Hollywood will certainly be adding Morton's name to its Rolodex.