Woody Allen's films tend to be best when he manages to get beyond himself, which isn't often these days. But if there's one thing Woody loves more than a part in which he lands a younger leading lady, it's jazz. "Sweet and Lowdown," Allen's latest film, is a semifictional paean to guitarist Emmet Ray, a jazz almost-great who faded into the shadow of the king of gypsy-jazz, Django Reinhardt.

Or so I thought. It turns out that "Emmet Ray" is a creation of Allen's, and the many contemporary jazz historians and critics (like Nat Hentoff) who comment on Ray's life and career in the film are in on the joke. But anyone familiar with the rough-and-tumble early days of jazz (before it became enshrined in the sterile cocoon of cultural respectability) will have no problem recognizing the sort of larger-than-life characters that inspired Emmet Ray -- wild men who put as much energy into wine, women and weed as they did into their music.

Set in the 1930s in Chicago nightclubs, on New Jersey boardwalks and in Hollywood back lots (all re-created with a great love of period detail), "Sweet and Lowdown" takes an anecdotal approach to Ray's career, maintaining the illusion that much has been lost to time and all that remains are the legends, sometimes with several versions of what actually happened (like when Ray discovers his wife having an affair with a Mafia hit man).