Sweet and Lowdown

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Sweet and Lowdown
Sweet lowdown moviep.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Woody Allen
Written byWoody Allen
Produced by Jean Doumanian
Cinematography Zhao Fei
Edited by Alisa Lepselter
Sweetland Films
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Release date
  • September 3, 1999 (1999-09-03)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$4,197,015

Sweet and Lowdown is a 1999 American comedy-drama mockumentary film written and directed by Woody Allen. Loosely based on Federico Fellini's film La Strada , the film tells the fictional story, set in the 1930s, of self-confident jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (played by Sean Penn) who falls in love with a mute woman (Samantha Morton). The film also stars Uma Thurman and Anthony LaPaglia. Like several of Allen's other films (e.g., Zelig ), the film is occasionally interrupted by interviews with critics and biographers like Allen, Nat Hentoff, Daniel Okrent,and Douglas McGrath, who comment on the film's plot as if the characters were real-life people.


The film received generally positive reviews upon release, [1] with Penn and Morton receiving Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.

Plot summary

Emmet Ray is a jazz guitarist who achieved some acclaim in the 1930s with a handful of recordings for RCA Victor, but who faded from public view under mysterious circumstances. Although he is a talented musician, Ray's personal life is a shambles. He is a spendthrift, womanizer and pimp who believes that falling in love will ruin his musical career. Due to his heavy drinking, he's often late or even absent for performances with his quintet. After music, his favorite hobbies are shooting rats at garbage dumps and watching passing trains. Ray idolizes famed guitarist Django Reinhardt, and is said to have fainted in his presence and to have fled a nightclub performance with severe stage fright upon hearing a false rumor that Reinhardt was in the audience.

On a double date with his drummer, Ray meets Hattie, a shy, mute laundress. After overcoming some initial frustration due to the difficulties of communication, Ray and Hattie form an affectionate and close relationship. She accompanies him on a cross-country trip to Hollywood, where he plays in a short film; Hattie is spotted by a director and enjoys a brief screen career. However Ray is convinced that a musician of his stature should never settle down with one woman. On a whim, Ray marries socialite Blanche Williams. However, Blanche sees Ray mainly as a colorful example of lower-class life and a source of inspiration for her literary writings. She reports that Ray is tormented by nightmares and shouts out Hattie's name in his sleep.

When Blanche cheats with mobster Al Torrio, Ray leaves her and locates Hattie. He assumes that she will take him back, but discovers that she is happily married and raising a family. Afterwards, on a date with a new woman, a despondent Ray plays a melody that Hattie adored and then smashes his guitar and forlornly repeats the phrase "I made a mistake!" as his date leaves him. Woody Allen and the rest of the documentary experts remarked that Ray's final compositions were legendary, finally reaching the quality of Reinhardt's.



Hot off his 1969 directing debut Take the Money and Run , Allen signed a contract to direct a series of films with United Artists. Told to "write what you want to write," Allen (a clarinetist and avid jazz enthusiast) wrote The Jazz Baby, a dramatic screenplay about a jazz musician set in the 1930s. Allen said later that the United Artists executives were "stunned ... because they had expected a comedy. [They] were very worried and told me, 'We realize that we signed a contract with you and you can do anything you want. But we want to tell you that we really don't like this.'" [2] Allen went along with United Artists, writing and directing Bananas instead. In 1995, he dismissed The Jazz Baby as having been "probably too ambitious." [2]

In 1998, Allen returned to the project, rewriting the script and dubbing it Sweet and Lowdown. In the role of Emmet Ray, a jazz guitarist whom Allen had originally planned to play himself, the director cast Sean Penn; Allen also considered Johnny Depp, but the actor was busy at the time. [3] In regard to working with Sean Penn, who had a reputation for being difficult to work with, Allen later said, "I had no problem with him whatsoever ... He gave it his all and took direction and made contributions himself ... a tremendous actor." [3]

Sweet and Lowdown was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Penn) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Morton). Morton's nomination was especially notable given that she does not utter a single word of dialogue in the film. Allen has said that he told Morton to "play the part like Harpo Marx. And she said, 'Who is Harpo Marx?' and I realized how young she was. Then I told her about him [and] she went back and saw the films." [3] In addition to her Oscar nomination, Morton's performance was met with critical acclaim, with Salon.com critic Stephanie Zacharek saying that she "quietly explodes [the film] ... Her performance is like nothing I've seen in recent years." [1]

Sweet and Lowdown was filmed entirely in New York and New Jersey [4] but is set in the Chicago area and California. [3]

The film was the first of Allen's that was edited by Alisa Lepselter, who has edited all of Allen's films since. Lepselter succeeded Susan E. Morse, who edited Allen's films for the previous twenty years.

It was the first of three films where Allen collaborated with Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei. Allen had first noticed Zhao with his award-winning work on Raise the Red Lantern , some years earlier.


The music for the film was arranged and conducted by Dick Hyman. All of the guitar solos are played by guitarist Howard Alden. Alden also coached Sean Penn on playing the guitar for his role in the film.

Additional rhythm guitarists were Bucky Pizzarelli and James Chirillo. Chirillo played rhythm guitar on the Sweet Georgia Brown track where the crescent moon cable breaks while Sean Penn is riding it. Pizzarelli did all other rhythm tracks.



Sweet and Lowdown received generally positive reviews; it currently holds a 77% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 61 reviews, with the consensus, "Critics praise Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown for its charming, light-hearted comedy and quality acting." [1] The film carries a 70 on Metacritic indicating generally favorable reviews. [6]

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  1. 1 2 3 Sweet and Lowdown at Rotten Tomatoes
  2. 1 2 Bjorkman, Stig, ed. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: Revised Edition. London: Faber and Faber, 1995, 2004. p. 36-7.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Bjorkman, Stig, ed. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: Revised Edition. London: Faber and Faber, 1995, 2004. p. 347–56.
  4. Davis, Tom. A Place For Troops, Troupes, Hoops: Teaneck Armory Still Vital Archived 2012-03-06 at the Wayback Machine , copy of article from The Record (Bergen County) , January 2, 2002. Accessed June 6, 2007.
  5. Harvey, Adam (2007). The Soundtracks of Woody Allen. US: Macfarland & Company, Inc. p. 138. ISBN   9780786429684.
  6. Sweet and Lowdown at Metacritic OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg