Oscar-nominated character actor John Hawkes plays real-life pianist Joe Albany, a musician whose obvious talent was undermined by his addiction to heroin. Stories of drug-addled jazzmen aren’t particularly revolutionary, and Hawkes’s performance, while superb, is fairly typical for the actor, who’s made a career out of playing various colorful lowlifes. Instead, what makes Low Down occasionally compelling is its laserlike narrative focus. Part of that seems like indie necessity: Creating believable ’70s flavor is more feasible when contained to, say, a series of dingy apartments.
Taking the film to another emotional register are the thoughts of Albany’s then-teenage daughter, Amy (played by the always-wonderful Elle Fanning). As told through her eyes, the movie takes on a haunting dimension, even while actively dodging biopic clichés (he’s using again!) and falling into long lulls where not much happens. Fanning manages to bring soulfulness to a character who mostly reacts to others; you just wish the whole movie were, well, jazzier.