"Life with an artist," Ann Arensberg once cleverly quipped, "is training for living alone. It is also good practice for living with more than one person. An artist belongs to his work, not to his sweetheart." Not a bad introduction to Woody Allen's fictionalized biography of a legendary American jazz guitarist set in the 1930s.
Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is a self-centered cad who constantly holds forth on his greatness as a guitarist. At one point, he even brags in front of some bums who don't know anything about music. Emmet has a loyal following in the various jazz spots and nightclubs where he plays. But the management in these places takes a dim view of his drunkenness, tardiness, and general irresponsibility.
Although several experts on music, including the scholar Nat Hentoff, appear at various interludes in the story to sing the praises of Emmet's artistry, they all agree he is a male chauvinist who uses and then discards women on a regular basis. By sheer luck he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton), a poor and mute laundress who lavishes all her attention and love upon him. He knows she's very special when she doesn't criticize his two favorite past times watching trains go by and shooting rats in alleys. Like the waif in Fellini's La Strada, Hattie is a pure soul.
Woody Allen's ironic sensibilities come to the fore in the second half of the drama when Hattie wins a bit part in a movie after Emmet takes her with him to Hollywood where he has hopes of being recognized as a star. After he ditches her and marries Blanche (Uma Thurman), the guitarist finds someone who treats him as badly as he's treated all the other women in his life. The moral of this bittersweet drama seems to be: Watch out for artists who toot their own horns too loudly they may be gloriously talented but their souls are usually stunted.