Low Down

Movie review by
Angela Zimmerman, Common Sense Media
Low Down Movie Poster Image
Bleak portrait of a brilliant but drug-addled jazz pianist.
  • R
  • 2014
  • 114 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Could definitely serve as a warning about the devastating consequences of drug use. There's also very real love between Amy-Jo and Joe; despite all their difficulties, they remain close and communicative with each other. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Most of the characters are deplorable. Joe is kind but weak; Amy-Jo's mom is a terrible, mean-spirited person who abandons her daughter and then torments her; and many other characters struggle with addiction themselves. Gram has a temper and in one scene lashes out at Joe physically, but she's also dependable, loving, and generous.


The movie begins with Amy-Jo looking at a newspaper with Vietnam War photos of dead and battered soldiers. Gram smacks Joe really hard across the face. It's revealed that Cole's stepfather beat him, which is when he began having seizures. A young mother is shown dead of a drug overdose. 


No nudity/explicit scenes, but plenty of sexual activity. Amy-Jo's parents get physical in a darkened room while she's falling asleep. She hears her dad having sex with an unknown woman through their front door. Amy-Jo also accidentally sees a porno movie being shot while looking out a window; although the scene is pretty innocuous, it's suggested what the actors are doing. Joe talks to Amy-Jo when she and Cole become sexually active and kindly tells her that she can come to him with any questions or worries. 


Many uses of "f--k"  and and its variations, including "motherf--ker" and "f--k you." Also "ass," "hell," "bitch," and "slut."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Explores the devastating impact of drug addiction; some scenes are very candid. Joe is continuously battling his heroin addiction; he and his friends are high in several of scenes. One graphic representation of him shooting heroin. Amy-Jo goes to a drug dealer's house to buy Joe drugs. Amy-Jo and Cole get high on nitrous oxide, and Cole takes medication for "seizures," but it's revealed that he also takes anti-anxiety medication and presumably struggles with drug addiction. Most of the characters drink; many scenes in bars and clubs. Amy-Jo's mother is an alcoholic who gets so drunk she can't walk and ends up collapsing. A young mother overdoses on drugs and is found dead. Joe was deported from Europe because he was busted with marijuana. Many of the characters smoke cigarettes; smoking in nearly every scene. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Low Down is a biopic about the brilliant but drug-addled jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), told from the point-of-view of his young daughter Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning), who grew up with him in a seedy part of Hollywood in the 1970s. Albany battled heroin addiction for much of his life, and the movie includes a few graphic depictions of his drug use amid the bleak desperation of his world as it crumbles around him. Plus, a young mother dies of a drug overdose, Amy-Jo's mother gets so drunk she collapses, and teenagers get high off nitrous oxide. Characters drink and smoke constantly, and there are cigarettes in nearly every scene. There's some sexual content, including when Amy-Jo accidentally witness a porno shoot, but there's no nudity or anything sexually graphic. There is plenty of profanity, including tons of "f--k"s and a mother viciously calling her daughter a slut. The movie has too much edgy material for most teens (and the slow pace and unfocused narrative would likely lose their interest anyway), but valuable lessons could be gleaned about the dangers of drug addiction.

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What's the story?

LOW DOWN is the story of esteemed jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), as seen through the eyes of his daughter, Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning), who grew up in the squalid underbelly of Hollywood in the 1970s amid a world of crippling drug addiction. Though Albany is a sought-after pianist with a world of possibilities, his ongoing battle with heroin renders his life completely unstable. And Amy-Jo's mother (Lena Headey) is a destructive alcoholic, so when Joe gets arrested while on probation and lands back in jail -- and ultimately runs off to Europe to tour the jazz scene there -- Gram (Glenn Close) steps in to raise Amy-Jo. Two years later, Joe returns to Hollywood ... and soon succumbs to his old habits while trying to help a now-teenage Amy-Jo navigate her own troubling adolescence. 

Is it any good?

This gloomy drama offers a glimpse into the life of a jazz pianist who could have been one of the greats but instead fell into the all-too-familiar trap of drugs and addiction. Hawkes, Fanning, and Headey give strong performances, each capturing the damage at the heart of their character in believable -- and painful -- ways. And the talented supporting actors (including Taryn Manning, Peter Dinklage, and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea -- who, along with Anthony Kiedis, served as executive producer to the film) help bolster and spark the story.

But the film is unfocused and shapeless and does nothing to distinguish Albany's story from the many, many others told about drugs and lost talent. There's virtually no character development, no insight into the mind and motivation of Albany as an artist and father, and no real narrative to drive any sympathy or interest in the characters . Director Joe Priess does a good job capturing the aimless and at time perverse despondency of Amy-Jo's slummy Hollywood, but it's not nearly enough to hold your interest for the movie's nearly two-hour runtime. Ultimately, the life of this brilliant jazz musician feels reduced to yet another cinematic cliche. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the consequences of drug addiction. Why do you think there are so many stories of drugs destroying promising careers, families, and relationships? Who are other famous (or not-so-famous) artists who've suffered from addiction? What consequences did they face? 

  • How do you think Low Down would be different if it was told from another character's perspective? How would the story unfold if it was told through the lens of Joe himself? What about Amy-Jo's mom or Gram?

  • Do you feel like Low Down is more a portrayal of Joe Albany the artist, or is it more about a young girl who grew up in an unstable environment impacted by drugs?

  • Talk about the tone of the film. What are some adjectives you could use to describe the pace, lighting, and dialog? How does the resolution of the film make you feel? Are you left satisfied or wanting more?

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