Looking back, it was probably only a matter of time before filmmaker Woody Allen decided to combine his professional career and his favorite hobby. In 1999 he did just that with Sweet and Lowdown, a mockumentary about a fictional jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray that gave Allen an excuse to delve into the cheerful '30s jazz with which he spends much of his free time as clarinetist for a Manhattan band. The 14 classic songs on the soundtrack, arranged and conducted by Allen's longtime musical collaborator, Dick Hyman, are as breezy and amiable as the film itself. Tunes like "I'll See You in My Dreams" and "Caravan" have a charm that's hard to resist, particularly as performed by the competent Dick Hyman Group and the obviously skilled lead guitarist Howard Alden, who provides the solos that actor Sean Penn mimes on camera as Emmet Ray. But if the soundtrack shares the movie's strengths (its buoyancy and sunny charm), it also shares some of its shortcomings. Allen seems to get skittish when it comes to delving below the brassy surface of his emotionally guarded subject. The superb Penn comes close to selling Ray as a three-dimensional character, but he always seems constrained by the clumsiness of the writing. The few glimpses we get of Ray's underlying pain and vulnerability usually end up coming off as contrived. Similarly, Hyman's indefatigably perky jazz is strong on fun but weak on soul. Alden has the daunting task of providing the music for a fictional guitarist who, we are told, has the technical proficiency to be the best in the world if only his playing demonstrated more depth of feeling. It's something of a mixed compliment to say that Alden accomplishes this assignment to the letter. Both the film and the soundtrack could stand to be a little more Sweet and Lowdown and a little less Sweet and Low.
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AllMusic Review by Evan Cater