There’s a lot of immaturity in Sweet and Lowdown. The story follows a talented, brilliant guitarist named Emmett Ray (Sean Penn) who acts on nearly every whim. Emmett is a child, basically. He’s proud and self-centered, and his undeniable talent affords him leeway to act impulsively.
Emmett doesn’t seem to have much of a goal in life other than to enjoy himself and be an artist, whatever that means. One of the first things we see him do is tell his wife he wants a divorce because as an artist he requires a certain amount of freedom.
Emmett meets a sweet, mute woman named Hattie (Samantha Morton) while he and his drummer are out trying to pick up women (mostly unsuccessfully). Emmett treats Hattie like a child, mostly because he assumes her muteness means she’s also quite unintelligent.
But Hattie is very childlike. She doesn’t seem dim-witted as much we her wide-eyed curiosity doesn’t match the attitudes of everyone around her. She quickly falls in love with Emmett, and watches him perform while gobbling down ice cream.
So despite starting a romance with her, Emmett never takes her seriously. They begin to travel together, briefly, after Emmett loses a residency because of a 4-day bender. Emmett and Hattie seem to get along well. She doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about his self-centered nature, and he begins to show signs of opening up a little more and losing his artist pretensions.
But then he suddenly leaves her because, again, he wants to be free. Not long after, Emmett meets Blanche (Uma Thurman) and they marry. Their marriage doesn’t last long before Emmett discovers she’s having an affair with a mobster.
Emmett then returns to New Jersey (where he met Hattie), and he assumes she’ll welcome him back with open arms. Instead, it turns out she’s happily married and has started a family.
Emmett goes on a date with just another woman and plays her a song that he had previously played for Hattie (that she loved). Then he breaks down and smashes the guitar, proclaiming that he made a mistake.
The film ends with a few talking heads (that have been placed throughout the film to give it a documentary feeling), saying that Emmett ultimately made music on par with that of Emmett’s hero, Django Reinhardt.
So the talking head segments are played straight, as if they’re talking about a real artist, a brilliant musician. Everything we see about Emmett, though, just indicates he’s childlike, vindictive, selfish and likes to complain. It’s a stark contrast between the image of him that the documentarians (including Woody Allen himself) have in their heads and the behavior we see throughout the film. Even the characters Emmett interacts with concede that he’s a brilliant musician, but they roll their eyes at him nonetheless.
We never even see Emmett practicing or coming up with a new composition. Everything about him is image-conscious. His hair is perfectly aligned, yet it looks like it might implode into itself at the slightest hint of a breeze. He’s always dressed impeccably, like he might accidentally run into a fancy night club.
But most of his time is spent in those kinds of clubs. He has a residency at one (until his partying gets him released from his contract). We often see Emmett performing, concerned with the theatrics and putting on a good show, but we never see him alone, practicing or writing even though he insists to the women in his life that he needs that freedom (to be alone).
He’s full of shit, I guess is what I’m saying. He sees himself as an artist, but 90% of an artist’s time working is spent in relative solitude, at least not in a spotlight. It’s hard for me to picture Emmett toying away on his guitar for hours alone at night. He must’ve been that person at one time, though. Or else how did he get to where he is? He’s definitely a talented guitar player, but it seems like the moment he received any success, he settled for it. That’s why he’s stuck playing shows for the same audiences over and over again when he could strive for something more, like his hero Django Reinhardt.
On the few occasions Emmett has met Django (one of which we see in the film), he has promptly fainted. He’s scared of meeting his hero, and it’s not just a nervous tick. It’s like he’s been left alone for the night, but he knows that when his father comes home he needs to have done his chores. Only in this case his father is Django and instead of a night it’s years. When Emmett sees Django, it’s a reminder that he’s been neglecting his talent and his true goal, to become a world-famous musician.
In the end, his despair over losing Hattie drives him to work as hard as he always needed to in order to become a musician on the same level as Reinhardt. That’s what the interview subjects say, but it’s also been established that they don’t know 100% of Emmett’s story. That’s the narrative that has been conveyed about Emmett’s career.
The ending, with Woody Allen saying about Reinhardt’s music, “they’re great, they’re really beautiful,” is surprisingly touching, even somber while the bulk of the film is much more silly and comedic.
I’m trying to think of bigger lessons to take away from Sweet and Lowdown. It’s meant to simulate a documentary, like Take the Money and Run or Zelig. It toes the line between those two films, I think. The subject of Zelig made sense as the subject of a documentary. It’s about a guy who is the human version of a chameleon, and he’s world-famous because of this ability. There was also a deeper, human struggle within Leonard Zelig as he was so used to trying to fit in that he never developed his own identity. In Take the Money and Run, on the other hand, Virgil isn’t really worthy of a documentary. I mean, that character did go through a lot, and there could be an interesting documentary on him, but the story is so scattered and silly that the documentary aspect just felt like a style that would help keep the story clear and permit large jumps forward in time.
In Sweet and Lowdown, the documentary aspect was combined with a style like that of a traditional narrative film. The interviews weren’t necessary to the story, but they did influence what we know about Emmett. The interviews contrasted with the character more than they described him. I guess what I’m trying to say is the revelations came in what we saw of Emmett, undercutting what was said about him. I don’t even know if I believe that. It seemed like the interview subjects knew Emmett was a bit childish and impulsive, but they focused on him as a genius artist, like none of the other stuff mattered as long as he made the music he made.
When you like someone or someone’s work, and that’s the only reason you like them, well then you might choose to ignore what else you learn about them, like an Emmett Ray apologist.