A.J. (Amy-Jo) Albany’s memoir Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood is a tender, spiky, beautifully evocative series of linked vignettes about her cruelly impoverished childhood as the daughter of a brilliant jazz pianist and junkie, Joe Albany, and a mean, self-centered mother (once the lover of Allen Ginsberg before he turned conclusively gay) who left them early and slid into terminal alcoholism. Amy and Topper Lilien have turned the book into a movie directed by Jeff Preiss, best known as the cinematographer of Bruce Weber’s extraordinary documentaries Broken Noses and Let’s Get Lost. Preiss brings a moody, lingering, be-bop touch to material that would be better in places with more zip, but if the film’s not as entertaining as the book, it’s pretty damn good, anyway. It has an immersive mood — a dim, junk-infused gloom from which there’s almost no escape. But then comes the music — underscored by Amy-Jo’s fierce love for her father and grandmother — and suddenly, that dimness is pierced by rays of hope.
Elle Fanning is Amy-Jo from 13 to somewhere around 16, rendered onscreen as a modest, self-effacing girl whose faith in her dad (John Hawkes) often wavers but somehow comes back even stronger. Their rapport is easy, funny, intimate; he says things (in front of their seedy building’s elevator) like, “Push the button, mutton,” and brings her along to watch him practice with fellow inspired but squalor-weary musicians. She watches him play and is transported. Hawkes has been smashingly effective as the edgy meth-cooking uncle in Winter’s Bone and the disabled writer in The Sessions, but he has never been as quietly marvelous as he is Low Down. There’s a bop in his step and a fluidity to his movements that crystallizes the connection between his character (with its manifold flaws) and his playing — the keyboard completes him. He often abandons his daughter — for drugs and gigs abroad — but when he’s with her, he’s with her. He gives her the best of himself, which will somehow carry her to safety.
There’s another stupendous performance: Glenn Close as the grandmother (“Gram”) with whom Amy-Jo often ends up living. Close has been wonderful in a wide variety of roles, but she can still reinvent herself and surprise you. I frankly never thought she had Gram in her. The key to this plain, occasionally self-dramatizing woman is her undimmed humanity and ferocious intelligence. She’s capable of fury when her son — her poor, weak, ingenious boy — succumbs to addiction, but she’s enough of a mother to cradle him tenderly into sleep.
The weakness of Low Down is that it misses the wry tone and scruffy, eccentrically funny parts of Albany’s memoir. In the film, Amy-Jo befriends — and develops a slight crush on — a solitary dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who lives in their building in what’s literally a hole in the wall. In the book, she’s fascinated and at times enchanted when he turns out to have a career as a porn actor, but onscreen, it’s presented as a crushing blow to her innocence. Fanning is among the most expressive young actresses in movies, and she’s a vivid presence here — her watchfulness clues you in that Amy-Jo will grow up to write her story. But the character is a bit of a goody-goody, and toward the end, when she gravitates to heroin herself, there’s absolutely no preparation for it.
Low Down is rich in vivid characters: Flea as a devoted (but increasingly lost) fellow musician; Caleb Landry Jones as the older Amy-Jo’s boyfriend, a wounded bird — a rock drummer with severe epilepsy; Billy Drago in the ultimate Billy Drago role as a smack dealer with zero hygiene. The milieu is corrosive, the connection between the free-floating lives of musicians and hard drugs to which they turn in moments of utter aloneness indelible. But as low down as Amy-Jo’s life goes, there’s a glow at the heart of the movie. You feel that there’s an emotional cost to what the actors are doing onscreen and to Albany for getting it down, however imperfectly. And you feel that the cost is why they do what they do — why they can only be artists.