A while back in these pages, I recounted one of my earliest live musical events, a George Jones-Tammy Wynette concert in Saratoga Springs. At that time, “No-Show Jones” was infamous for last-minute cancellations, due to alcohol and cocaine addiction, and as we made the long drive from Great Barrington, Mass., to Saratoga, I remember my parents wondering whether there would really be a show. They were strangely calm about it, and when Jones did, in fact, cancel, and we were forced to turn back home, I was shocked and a little annoyed that their conversation was along the lines of “Poor George, he just can’t lick the drink . . .” and “Such a voice, I just hope he can turn his life around.” (This from the mother who would have smacked us 10 sides of Sunday if any of us ever pulled a no-show for dinner.)
I bring this up because watching the movie Crazy Heart, one can’t help but be reminded of great and troubled artists like Jones, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck, not to mention movie treatments (A Face in the Crowd, Payday, Tender Mercies) of the same. But what makes Crazy Heart different from the same old stereotyped plot is Jeff Bridges’ soaring performance. Playing Bad Blake, a singer-songwriter whose best days and work are behind him, Bridges is crusty, messy and rumpled, with whiskers and glasses frequently flecked with vomit. At the movie’s opening, he shows up for a gig only to find it’s a bowling alley, and there’s no bar tab. Still, a decent and devoted crowd shows up, anxious to lap up the old songs they know so well. It’s an appreciative bunch, as die-hard country fans (and I’m one) can be, willing to forgive a momentary bolt from the stage (in order to throw up) and still thrilling over a fulfilled request. First-time director Scott Cooper, who adapted the movie from a late ’80s novel by Tom Cobb, avoids making Bad’s fans look like a bunch of losers worth mocking; they may be past their prime, but in the dim lights of a dirty bar, they can reconnect to their youth and maybe tap into new aspirations, thanks to Bad’s batch of hits.
Crazy Heart crisscrosses the American Southwest in what appears to be a pre-cell-phone era. The grandeur of red rocky mountains and plateaus, and endless ribbons of highway, offers a startling counterpart to the series of drab motel rooms and dingy bars where Bad spends most of his non-driving time. Despite a plethora of health problems, hastened by his smoking and binge drinking, Bad nevertheless still has the chops to play the crowd. A young newspaper reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), finds herself drawn to the good ole playboy underneath the grizzle—and who wouldn’t be, when Bad keeps telling her that she makes him want to apologize for the ugliness of his room. Underneath the paunch and gray hair, Bad bears a subtle resemblance to John Carradine’s courtly but mysterious passenger in John Ford’s Stagecoach.
While Jean and her little boy offer Bad a chance for redemption, the more compelling relationship in this movie is that of Bad and his one-time protégé, now mega-star (think Tim McGraw) Tommy Steele (Colin Farrell). Bad pointedly refuses to answer any of Jean’s questions about Tommy, while at the same time griping to his manager (James Keane) that he needs to record a duet with him. All this makes us wonder about the nature of Tommy’s duplicity. Subsequent scenes between the two are a study in mood and characterization—I hate to say more because I don’t wish to give anything away, but suffice it to say this: Watch closely the subtle interplay between the performers in Bad’s opening act for Tommy’s big show. Cooper, wisely, doesn’t spoonfeed us what’s being thought and felt, but rather lets his marvelous leads “do the talking.”
Percolating beneath the solid framework of the narrative is T Bone Burnett’s masterful soundtrack, songs that sound authentic and yet fresh. Bridges and Farrell do their own singing, believably and confidently. Blake’s current state is like that sung about in the most memorable honky-tonk lyrics, and Cooper makes wise choices in his use of other music, notably George Jones’ “Color of the Blues” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” But Cobb also understands that country is more than just blues and loss, that it holds out the possibility of redemption. George Jones sang “Once You’ve Had the Best,” in which he gladly took back his cheating wife because, among other things, she had “more love in her little finger than all the rest.” While it may read corny on paper, hearing it you get a soaring sensation of forgiveness and hope. In Crazy Heart, Bad Blake sings several times his signature hit, “Falling feels like flying, if only for a little while,” but at film’s end, he’s reconnected to his artistry and is able to find new words to new chords. The transformation is mightily fulfilling, for both the protagonist and the audience.