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Sweet and Lowdown is a 1999 film written and directed by Woody Allen which tells the story of a (fictional) arrogant, obnoxious, alcoholic jazz guitarist named Emmett Ray (played by Sean Penn) who regards himself as perhaps the best guitarist in the world, or second best, after his idol, Django Reinhardt. The film also stars Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, and Samantha Morton as Hattie, a lovable young mute girl. Allen appears briefly as himself, being interviewed about Ray's music. The film, loosely based on Federico Fellini's film La strada, was one of Allen's most well-received dramatic films.

Production history

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 wrote The Jazz Baby, a dramatic screenplay about a jazz musician set in the thirties. 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.'" Allen went along with United Artists, writing and directing Bananas instead. In 1995, he dismissed The Jazz Baby as having been "probably too ambitious."

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.) Though Allen was initially wary of working with Penn, having heard that he was difficult, he later said that "I had no problem with him whatsoever....He gave it his all and took direction and made contributions himself... a tremendous actor."

Allen's use of Penn (and Morton) paid off when Sweet and Lowdown was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Sean Penn) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Samantha Morton). Morton's nomination was especially notable, considering the fact 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." 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 movie]....Her performance is like nothing I've seen in recent years."

Sweet and Lowdown was filmed entirely in New Yorkmarker but set in the Chicago area and California.

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

Music

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.

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