Saturday, January 16, 2010

Living in a Song: Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Besides gospel, there is probably no other musical genre in American culture that is so devoted to the quest for roots, or the deep desire for personal transformation, than country music. So when the boozy, destitute country-and-western singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) in Crazy Heart sings “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else,” he carries in his voice those ghosts on the lost highway that carried singers like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. (Speaking of gospel, Blake may also be carrying the ghost of Thomas A. Dorsey who wrote “Peace in the Valley,” a song about transcendence that drew the interest of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley where, in the song, the singer hopes to “be changed from this creature that I am.”)

Crazy Heart is a movie about people who live in songs, trying to find both the roots of their pain, and the seeds of their own salvation within them. Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, director Scott Cooper doesn’t do anything startlingly new in terms of storytelling, but he does bring a fresh interpretation to a familiar tale: the redemption of the washed-up artist. It also helps that Cooper has Jeff Bridges at the helm. Looking as bleary as a sleep-deprived Kris Kristofferson, Bridges gives a soulful, yet dry and witty performance as a forlorn singer whose wasted life is at odds with his songwriting talent.

Colin Farrell and Jeff Bridges
The story follows Blake as he hits the road doing concerts in bowling alleys, or seedy bars, and playing to older, nostalgic folks. They hope to connect to the man whose songs once became an indelible part of their lives. Blake knows that he can’t live up to that image so, although he never misses a show, he makes his participation in them vague and uncertain. (In one funny scene, he departs midway through a song to barf in a back alley before rejoining the group for the tune’s conclusion.) While Bad Blake performs in small towns with pick-up groups (who once admired him), his protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who sings Blake’s songs, sells out huge arenas and records hit albums. Sweet has had the success that continues to elude Bad. But Blake has grown used to dives and middle-aged groupies, hiding his bitterness in a bottle, until he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter for a Santa-Fe newspaper. Jean is a single-mom who loves country music – and the songs of Bad Blake – and she wants to do a feature piece on him. But rather than discussing his past, Blake sees a possible hopeful future in this grounded, level-headed beauty. At first glance, he remarks, in the spirit of a typical country lyric, “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.”

Crazy Heart is about how this bond between them, where they share the lonely, hurtful pining in Blake’s songs, can’t create a stable life when the singer is a barely functional alcoholic. But that’s where Crazy Heart is most original. If Blake can’t transcend the life he sings about in his songs, Jean hopes to find in the man the tender vulnerability she hears in his compositions. The film is basically about how popular music sometimes connects with us so strongly that we hope the artist is the person that we hear in their work. That’s why the romance between this solid working mom and this older broken down man is both believable and poignant – and also, why it can’t truly work. It can only inspire another aching lyric in another hurtin’ country song.

Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall
While it’s no secret that Jeff Bridges is one of our great actors, what makes him great is his ability to create distinctly personable portraits without a shade of self-consciousness in his acting. (When he does become self-conscious, as in his ridiculous caricature of the director in George Sluizer’s pointless American remake of The Vanishing, he comes across much worse than a more stylish actor might.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is a perfect match for Bridges since she plays Jean’s romantic longing close to the ground. She has no illusions about Blake, only a desire for something resembling what she loves most in his songs, so there is nothing self-destructive in her yearning. Although it’s a small role, Colin Farrell plays a Garth Brooks prototype without a hint of vanity. Tommy Sweet knows that he’s become a huge success because of Blake’s songs, so Farrell doesn’t turn Sweet into a conventional adversary. While the music in the film is composed mostly by T Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and Steven Broder, Bridges and Farrell do all their own singing and it brings a documentary naturalism to their performances.

Crazy Heart was co-produced by Robert Duvall (who has a minor part here) so the picture suggests something of the earlier Bruce Beresford movie Tender Mercies. But that film was so arid and minimal that Duvall’s alcoholic singer always seemed at a remote distance. (His stoic pain was depicted as a badge of integrity.) Crazy Heart is much looser and less formal, without the fundamentalist armour of Tender Mercies. The mercies in Crazy Heart instead are transitory, usually fragile, and much like the songs Bad Blake sings in his desire to find a way home.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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