Elle Fanning and John Hawkes in "Low Down." (Photo: Sundance Institute)


The sad and lovely musical biography “Low Down” stars John Hawkes as the late Joe Albany, a talented but troubled jazz pianist who recorded with Charlie Parker and Lester Young in the 1940s.

 It’s a typically observant piece of work by Hawkes. He transforms himself with chameleon skill into a tender father and unreconstructed drug addict raising his adoring daughter (played by Elle Fanning) in a seedy Hollywood hotel. 

The most breathtaking aspect of the performance may be the extended scenes of Hawkes fingering the keyboard in perfect synch with Albany’s punchy bop recordings. It’s the type of commitment Hawkes typically brings to his work. After all, he learned to type with a mouth stick for his role as a quadriplegic journalist in last year’s “The Sessions.”

Director Jeff Preiss covered similar jazz-noir ground as cinematographer for the Oscar-nominated 1988 Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost.” Preiss lauded Hawkes’ commitment following a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Hawkes, a guitarist and songwriter himself (he’s on the “Winter’s Bone” soundtrack) worked intensely with musician Ohad Talmor, who assured Preiss that Hawkes was ready for his turn in the spotlight.

The film’s first music scene, a trio playing at a bohemian party, is a complicated bit of choreography that showed the Alexandria-born Hawkes playing from several angles. “We left it till the end of the day,” Preiss said. “All day John had a little keyboard in his trailer. He just sat there concentrating. Came the time, he went through the whole tune on the first take. I was looking at the monitor aw we were roving the room and there’s John playing. We go back to his hands and it’s perfect. We come off and go around and back to his hands. It’s perfect, two or three times. End of the song, I say ‘Cut,’ and there was the sound of a stampede in the hallway.” The door banged open as the off-set crew, who had monitored the proceedings on video screens, burst in. 

“They could not believe they had just seen something that didn’t seem possible,” said Preiss, who has directed music videos for everyone from Iggy Pop, Malcolm McLaren, REM and the B-52s to Mariah Carey, said, “it’s an amazing feat that John Hawkes did, an incredible example of his brilliance as an actor.”


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