I grew up in a strict no-jazz house. My parents mocked the lack of traditional melody or pop song structure, often singing ‘be bop bop bop be dooo’ as if all jazz was some sort of dim-witted spawn of the Andrew Sisters. I took this prejudice into college where my relentless drive for cutting edge music led me from Yes to King Crimson to Van Der Graaf Generator to Soft Machine and my roommate saying ‘I didn’t know you were into jazz.’ Whoops. All the things I loved about progressive rock – the virtuoso playing, the stunning time signatures, the delicate control of an extended solo meandering around the melody only to return when least expected – of course ,they all came from jazz. As I dove into the genre, I realized this subculture that exists around it was something I was never going to be able to master, knowing who is playing on what album, in a constant shuffle of sidemen, often unlabelled on the recording. I felt a bit like Tom Ripley studying up before meeting Dickie in Italy. So these hardcore jazz fans, they always impress me.
That’s a long way of saying before I saw the movie LOW DOWN, I had no idea who Joe Albany was, but I appreciate a good player, and that makes me the perfect audience for this film. Joe Albany, a jazz pianist, played with Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. He recorded The Right Combination in 1957 with Wayne Marsh, an essential album for any Jazz collection. But Jeff Preiss’s film doesn’t linger too long on any of the details of Albany’s career; Low Down focuses on Albany through the eyes of his daughter, Amy. “Just by virtue of it being that, painting the portrait through someone’s particular experience,” Preiss says, “it makes the relationship that Joe’s music had with the public less important and makes the story more universal.” I had a chance to speak with Preiss last week about his film, and how the story basically fell in the lap, even if he had to pull it out from the source a bit.”
“I met Amy very early, around 10 years ago,” he says, “she was actually working on my set, of a commercial I was shooting. She was doing crafts service.” Amy Albany, played by Elle Fanning in the film, grew up in Los Angeles, her dad’s biggest fan. Preiss says Amy is an authority on jazz, not just the music, obviously, but the lifestyle, the life the music creates around it. “She was listening to actually a cassette of Chet Baker Sings,” he remembers, “which is in fact the first Chet Baker album I ever heard which made me become obsessed With Chet Baker and lead to my filming Let’s get Lost.” Let’s Get Lost, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is an amazing 1988 documentary on Chet Baker directed by Bruce Weber that was nominated for an Oscar, and on which Preiss served as cinematographer. “I said something about knowing Chet Baker and she kind of dismissed me and said that she knew him too,” Preiss continues, “and I asked how and she said ‘I’m Joe Albany’s daughter.’” Preiss says she was surprised to hear he has a fan of her father’s, because Joe Albany is not very well known in the general public, but is kind of only known among other musicians. “And Amy started telling me stories,” he says, “and I wanted to make a film with her, just right away.”
Preiss’s first idea was to just drive around Los Angeles with Amy telling stories, because as much as these were stories about her father, they were also about Los Angeles at a very particular time, but she got very camera shy. “She decided instead to write the stories down,” he explains, “and that became the memoir which was optioned by Albert Berger at Bona Fide and they didn’t know anything about me participating in these stories being written.” After a year of trying to put the film together with other directors, the project eventually made its way back to Preiss, and only later did the producers realize that he had been so involved with it already. “The memoirs she kind of sent me in little letters,” he says, “the stories are so unusual, they were almost like little dreams I thought the way she told them. And I thought something was going to happen with those stories, so I just kept asking her for more, and so she wrote them almost as a series of letters.” At a party his producing partner Mindy Goldberg was giving, Preiss met a publisher who was doing an issue of the literary magazine on stories around music. “I said you cannot believe the stories that I’ve got coming to me in the mail,” he says, “and I think I may even have left to run home and come back to the party with them because I couldn’t wait for her to read them.” This chance party guest ended up working with Amy on getting the memoir published.
Low Down is a fascinating watch. Sharply divided between two times of Amy’s life, first as a somewhat naïve eleven year old confined to the borders of Joe’s life, and second, four years later, after the bloom has worn off the rose a little bit. Unfortunately, like so many great Jazz musicians, Joe lived in the shadow of addiction – heroin – a demon he struggles against in every moment on screen. There are times he seems to be overcoming it, only to be dragged back for reasons we are never quite privy. Part of this is due to the conscience choice of telling the film through Amy’s eyes. “One of the things that we make use of was that Joe is not well-known,” Preiss says, “there’s no mythology that exists about him. And so there’s really no pressure to overly historicize his story arc. He can just be a man, he could just be Amy’s dad. We were trying to make the movie to not privilege Joe’s story over Amy’s, but be instead Joe’s story as experienced by Amy.” This also leads to very distinct story-telling styles. In the first half, the film is much more kaleidoscopic, with Amy experiencing events mostly as an onlooker, but struggling to get inside them. The structure actually feels a lot like jazz itself, improvising around a melody, coming back to this relationship between the two main instruments, but falling into moments of discord and distance. “The jazz comparison is interesting also when you think about the devotion that just comes out of,” Preiss responds, “I always think that to use jazz as a model for a movie is a great idea but it also has to go all the way, it has to be very very carefully crafted. Because jazz, in addition to having this incredible freedom, also only has it because it’s been so devotional. … we put the burden of filmmaking on how immersive it could be, and I think what ended up happening was that it like a dream and a little bit like childhood memory.” In fact, Amy Jo Albany’s memoir Low Down included the subtitle Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood. The first half of the film comes sort of crashing down as Amy wanders onto a fairy-tale-like movie set in her apartment basement and ruins her own illusions. Although she never reveals it to his face, her illusions about her father also seem destroyed as he announces he’s headed to Europe to get clean and that he’ll send for her. Part two of the film begins four years later, upon his first return.
“The second half the movie is a little bit more documentary-like,” Preiss says, but both halves follow the memoir pretty strictly. “I worked with Topper Lilien the screenwriter on some kind of shape, slightly more conventional that would keep the audience in the progression of things as the movie went along,” he explains, “and then after doing this with Topper for a while, Amy got involved, and Amy had such an incredible ear for the characters and that time that she started to really collaborate with Topper and the two of them ended up co-writing the screenplay.” Even though Low Down has a very curious and singular structure, the film remains a universal story, one entirely accessible to anyone, but especially anyone who has grown up in a home filled with secrets. “In a way maybe this is a classical idea,” Preiss continues, “because it’s a story of childhood and innocence coming to an end.”
The film is full of amazing performances, not just Elle Fanning and John Hawkes as her father, but also Lena Headey, Taryn Manning, Tim Daly, Glenn Close, and Peter Dinklage. For me, the truly eye-opening performance comes from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as Albany’s friend and fellow player Hobbs. Flea, a one-time Jazz trumpet player himself, came on to the film as an all too familiar ‘producer’s suggestion.’ “Somewhere along the line we were told that if we could cast like a rock musician then it makes the movie more valuable in certain markets,” Preiss remembers; “it was just one of these like sort of awful producer strategy things that we were always having to contemplate.” Side note, this film took over ten years to get from memoir to screen. “ To me it just seems like unwelcome information,” he says, “but Amy heard it and was all excited and said ‘that’s brilliant, we have to cast Flea.’” Preiss thought this was a great idea, he had actually filmed Flea 25 years ago for the Chet Baker documentary and knew he was a huge Jazz fan, but the connection was even better. “Amy knew that he grew up in the same neighborhood that she did, same time among the same crowd, and knew the scene intimately,” the director says, “and Flea’s dad was a jazz bass player, rather legendary for being hugely talented and unrecorded for problems quite similar to Joe’s.” They sent Flea the screenplay and he met with them and “the very first thing he said was ‘this movie furthers the cause of Jazz, when I read it I feel like my mind is blown because I’m reading the story of my own life and I’ll do anything to help this be made including opening my checkbook.’” He took on the role of Hobbs as a ‘labor of love,’ and even brought in Chili Pepper singer Anthony Kiedis as an additional producer. “That was unbelievable,” Preiss says, “I mean he really felt so deeply about it, and it seemed to me that it was almost the only thing on his mind the entire duration of our production. …I think he was the best casting choice in the world for that part. He knew what that character was. It’s so rare to have the depth of understanding of someone like that. And [Hobbs] is a side character in the drama but so important in expressing what jazz in LA was. Flea is very much a surrogate for the film’s soul.”
Low Down does so many things well, it really captures and era and the people. Part of that is dress and location of course, but in a film like this, a big part is music. “In every instance where you hear something that is meant to represent a full performance,” Preiss says, “that is a historic Joe Albany recording that John learned transcriptions of to be able to play.” In addition, there’s the music that people are playing, the radio and records. “These are all based on what we knew to be Joe’s musical world,” the director continues, “the composers he loved, the tunes he played the most, so it gave us an insight into what is musical preferences were.” Billy Strayhorn’s tune Lotus Blossom, which Joe played all the time according to Preiss, becomes sort of an unofficial theme of Low Down. Also weaved into the environment is the steady drone of television, radio, news, all sorts of sonic intruders on the jazz household. “Amy and I are both people that came of age in the 70s,” says Preiss, “and who ended up being, through various different roots, jazz fans, monster movie fans, classic movie fans, local television station fans, and this produces a kind of audio atmosphere and so we tried to include that as well.”
Despite 20 plus years behind a camera, Low Down is the first narrative feature Jeff Preiss has directed, something very surprising considering the scope of the film, and the phenomenal performances he got. “I came into it facing a certain amount of intimidation,” he admitted, “and then I very quickly realized that all directing is, is getting everyone to tell the same story. And when the story is so backed up by psychological truth, the actors really can go there.” Having Amy Jo Albany on set each day was a great help for both he and the actors. “She was the touchstone for every actor to be grounded in truth of the story,” he says, and “because Amy understood the inner psychology of the characters so deeply, all the narratives energies in the movie that come from that really routed back to a true place.”
Make no mistake, Low Down is not an easy story. It is heart-breaking at times, beautiful at others, and both in many places. The film is a rare case that uses a historical character as jumping off place as a way to tell something that rises above one man’s life. Fans of Joe Albany should be thoroughly satisfied, as the period, the music, the detail, is, to use Preiss’s word, devotional. But there is so much more to this film than just jazz, and so much more to be experienced than just the story.
Low Down opens in Austin at the Regal Arbor Friday, August 14th.