This latest film from Woody Allen looks at one of the rarest subjects in all moviedom: the life of a jazz guitarist. That makes it worth looking at on this website. I don't want to make this a "movie review" in the conventional sense but rather take a look at it from the guitaristic point of view.
The film is a mock documentary about Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist of the 1930s. Played by Sean Penn, Emmet is an amazingly gifted musician. In fact, he is considered to be the "second" best guitarist in the world (The first being Django Reinhardt). Emmet is cocky and abusive with a self-destructive streak a mile wide. He is also in absolute awe of Django's playing, unable to hear the Gypsy master's recordings without coming to tears.
Briefly, the film follows Ray's life and career through the Midwest and East Coast of the USA as he struggles with his stifled emotions and inability to maintain any healthy relationships. He is shown to be a scoundrel offstage, but when he goes onstage and picks up his guitar he becomes an angel.
Enough about the story. The point of this review is the music. Emmet Ray's musical alter ego is none other than Howard Alden, one of the true virtuosi of jazz guitar today. It is Howard we hear when Sean Penn is pretending to play onscreen (about that more later) and his playing is superb. A standout tune from this film is I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, which is given an elegantly simple and heartfelt reading by Howard. The guitar playing is one of the main characters in this film in my opinion, and this is perfect casting.
You will also hear the master himself. Django's recorded performances are an important part of the soundtrack, especially the opening credits which feature When Day Is Done.
I get the sense that Howard played conservatively on this film, as I've heard him live and there's no comparison. But that doesn't belittle what he's done on the soundtrack. The sensitivity and melodicism that has always been an Alden trademark is apparent, and hearing his studio-recorded acoustic sound in a big movie theater was remarkable. If you see this film in a theater for one reason, this would be it.
The movie is chock full of tunes, including I'll See You In My Dreams, All Of Me, Limehouse Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown, Twelfth Street Rag and many more. The standout performances owe a lot to the flawless rhythm playing of Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky is no stranger to Woody Allen's films, having played on several along with music director and pianist Dick Hyman. His sense of swing is immaculate and joyous and his tone is gorgeous.
I have read that Alden coached Sean Penn in the art of pretending to play the guitar. I don't know if this is true, but apparently many film critics thought Penn really was playing on camera. Let me say this: To a musician, especially a guitarist, Penn isn't even close to being convincing. In fact there's a close-up at the beginning of the film that is brutally obvious. However, the few non-musician friends I have swear Penn was actually playing guitar. Well, I guess you have to consider the audience. It would certainly have taken Penn more than 30 years of practice to play the stuff that Howard effortlessly reels off and I guess that would put the picture behind schedule.
Sean Penn is playing a Macciaferri-type guitar, an obvious reference to Django, but the sound you hear is an unamplified archtop. My guess is that Howard played one of his Benedettos - or is that Benedetti? The onscreen rhythm guitarist sports a Gibson ES-125 or 150. There are certainly plenty of droolable guitar shots in this movie.
A point of contention about this film among guitarists may be how Django's legacy is presented. Some of his ardent fans may have a problem with the sound and style of Howard's playing, concerned that it may misrepresent to the public what style of player Django was. I don't see the problem, however. The character of Emmet Ray is an American and would be expected to play in the style of, for example, Eddie Lang or Lonnie Johnson. Certainly Alden is the best choice for the task. Besides, the general public can't tell the difference. At least they're being exposed to great music for a change, and both Howard's and Django's music will benefit from it. We can be fortunate that Woody Allen is such a jazz lover and treats the subject with respect.
I'll defer to the established film critics as to the merits of the film itself, although I enjoyed it a great deal. Don't expect concert length performances, after all, there is a story to tell. Come to this film expecting some laughs, good acting, cool clothes and cars, bad fake guitar playing and the hippest music heard at the movies in a long long time. And expect Howard Alden's beautiful playing to fill the room. You won't be disappointed.