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film review

Still of John Hawkes and Elle Fanning in Low Down (2014). Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Two jazz films won awards at Sundance this year. One of them was Whiplash; the other was Low Down, an expressive but somewhat lacklustre first feature from Jeff Preiss. Neither movie is about jazz.

Oh, the music is there: In this true story concerning Joe Albany, an early bebop pianist of some renown, there are degenerate jazzers who live it, play it and nod out to it. Albany was a junkie for smack, and all his friends had the needles too. Low Down isn't about Joe, though – it's the story of his daughter, who survived an ugly and uncommon upbringing and lived to tell about it.

Tell about it in the form of Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, Amy-Jo Albany's memoir. Portrayed with finesse and depth in the film by Elle Fanning, daughter Albany co-wrote the script. In one scene she requests that her father play her favourite song, Over the Rainbow.

Everybody knows that one, the song that is a hope and a question – "If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can't I?" Often we hear it as a bluesy, hoping-against-hope delusion. And that is what is happening in Low Down.

Set in the scummy Hollywood of the mid-1970s, the film's cinematography is gritty and sumptuous, much like some of your better cop or drug dramas of that same era. At one point Albany is busted in front of his daughter. It's possible that it was Serpico, Popeye Doyle and Dirty Harry who took him down.

John Hawkes lyrically portrays Albany, the gifted but drug-addled pianist who's too busy avoiding his parole officer to adequately raise his teenage daughter. After a meal of Chinese takeout, she reads his fortune cookie. It's promising, about dreams, but only a chump would believe it and, while Albany is many things, he's not a chump. He knows it isn't going to end well. Everybody knows it.

His long-suffering mother is played by Glenn Close, who delivers a strong character portrayal as she enters her Cloris Leachman years. Flea, the bassist for the funk-rock exciters the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is soulful as a pathetic, mild-mannered and mumbling saxophonist.

The story – gentle, poetic, of quiet desperation, but only scratching surfaces – moves slowly and really doesn't go anywhere, except when it comes to the daughter Albany. Her absent, alcoholic mother is nothing less than a monster. She loves her father "as only a daughter could," but as the time passes she comes to realize that he will only drag her down.

In life there are darknesses. Joe Albany uses heroin to float above them, while his daughter, in one scene, sucks back helium for her own elevation. Somewhere over the rainbow the skies are blue, that's the dream. Some make it, some don't – this eloquent daughter's tale shows both sides.