Masterful Performances Freshen a Familiar Tune

Crazy HeartCrazy Heart, a film review by David Perkins

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A broken down, burned out, booze-pickled, emotionally incapacitated country music legend swerves across the Southwestern U.S. in a prehistoric GMC Suburban (I think) playing one-night-stands in gloomy bars and bowling alleys, while steering his life directly for a cliff, where he is apparently content to fly off the precipice fully aflame and end it in a pathetic, almost unnoticed, explosion.

Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, the aforementioned country music legend. Blake has clearly enjoyed better times but has stopped writing songs, taken refuge in the bottle, and trolls the substrata of the entertainment world living on memories of hits past. Meanwhile, a younger protégé, Tommy Sweet played by Colin Farrell, has hit the big time on the strength of Blake’s songwriting talents. Blake seems bitter.

The inevitable romantic interest for Blake is Jean Craddock, played persuasively by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a Santa Fe reporter sent to interview Blake before a local performance. She’s the mother of a four-year-old son, with emotional baggage of her own, but she’s drawn to Blake despite their age difference and the fact that, during most of the film, he looks as if he smells like a ripe wheel of cheese on a warm day. Still, against her better judgment, they become involved. And, heartened by the only emotional connection he’s felt in some time, Blake seeks redemption in, and for, Jean.

If this sounds like a song you’ve heard, or a film you’ve seen before, you’re right. You have. But you haven’t seen it done this well since Tender Mercies in 1983, which won Robert DuVall a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as the drunken, washed up country singer. Maybe not coincidentally, DuVall is an executive producer and supporting actor in Crazy Heart. This is territory fraught with potential cliché, and they didn’t manage to avoid them all, but they did skip the big one, and first time writer-director Scott Cooper does an able job of steering clear of the ones that could have made this just an adequate film. The screenplay was adapted from the novel by Thomas Cobb.

What makes this film a must see, however, is the performance by Jeff Bridges. It may be the best of his career, even though he’s been Oscar-nominated four times before. The minor surprise here is that both Bridges and Farrell are good enough singers to be convincing in their roles. Not a great singer, Bridges nonetheless has a smoke and whiskey cracked, but resonant, voice that at times reminded me of Kris Kristofferson. Except that Bridges carries a tune a little better than Kris.

Bridges turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, and looks pretty good. Bad Blake is 57 in Crazy Heart, and looks an unhealthy 77. Bridges is completely convincing as Bad Blake, a man on his last leg, soaked through with alcohol, and beaten down by his own hand. But he can still croak out a poignant lyric in a quiet moment and make you believe it. And his rowdy, drunken stage performances are just as well done, and comically sad.

The songs, by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, sound like genuine country hits that you’d swear you’ve heard on a jukebox somewhere at some time. Stephen Bruton, who was a close friend and collaborator of Kristofferson’s for years, died in May 2009 of cancer, just as the film was completing production. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Robert DuVall takes on a small role as Houston bar owner, and Blake’s best friend, Wayne. DuVall is always quirky and fun to watch, even in a secondary role. My old friend Beth Grant makes a brief appearance here as well, as a one-night-stand for Blake just before he meets Jean Craddock. She is always memorable in whatever role she takes on, and this one is no different. She commands your attention whenever she’s in the frame, and is always willing to offer herself up for a comic moment. And you will laugh.

This film came very close to not being released at all. Its distributor, Paramount Vantage, folded its tent before the film was completed and her parent company, Paramount Pictures, had no interest in the film. But neither did they want to give it up to another distributor. It seemed destined for direct-to-dvd release. Some skillful negotiations by Scott Cooper’s agent finally worked out a deal for Fox Searchlight to handle distribution. And we’re all lucky for it.

It will be just fine on DVD when it gets there, but this film deserves its time on the big screen. It’s good enough, and it’s important enough, and these performances are powerful enough to be seen in a real theater. That’s where good films belong.

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  1. Thank you, David. This review is most informative on many levels. These days, I don’t much make it to the movie theater. Your point is well taken about the distribution. As you have written, “Anyone can have a web page.” The distributer is important. United Artists was formed by actors wanting to control their own fates within their media. These are well established actors, producers, writers. et cetera. Simply because one “arm” of Paramount closed up business, that in no way should negate the value of work in progress. I am proud that Fox Searchlight was willing to step in — I have not yet seen the film.

  2. VERY NICE – I will try to find it soon in a theater. I didn’t realize Beth was in it, that gives it a plus!

  3. Went to see “Crazy Heart” last night — it was a bit of difficulty to find a location — The Angelika in Dallas was playing it. You are absolutely right — it deserves BIG SCREEN playing and venue for the good sound that is there. Outstanding performances. Most definitely will look for both the CD and the DVD. Jeff Bridges, it is possible, has done the best role of his life and Robert DuVall was charming in his “been there, done that part” — a true double entendre artistically speaking. I really liked that last scene with the huge expanse of virgin soil, clear concrete, with only a see through wire preventing falling into the precipice (off the cliff) — kind of summed up “fresh start,” clean page, and what ya’ do with it is up to you.

    Additionally, the envy of ease of creating these songs — just doin’ it — as opposed to taking years to create — essence of innate ability, beautifully expressed with one sentence within the move.

    Thank you for taking the time to see, and review this movie so I was inspired to see it as well, David.

  4. I did get both versions of the CD “Crazy Heart.” They both list as Original Motion Motion Picture Soundtrack. The regular version came in a hard plastic case. It has no words to the songs, and a few pictures in a foldout sheet. The Deluxe contains 23 songs and the case is one of those cardboard ones and in no way labeled on the spine, front or back any way differently (other than the number 23 instead of 16). On the plastic shrink wrap, there is a sticker which shows it to be the Deluxe.

    Both are good (of course).

    I like each of them for different reasons. The movie version, is simply that, and I can remember the movie from that ats it plays.

    The Deluxe has some other songs mixed in. There is a little booklet with the words to the songs in the movie, but not the extras. The notes for all of the songs seem to actually be readable without a magnifying glas. (That’s a plus). For me, it is kind of like a juke box. I like that. Additionally, I also like Harry Chapin. In one of his songs the lady says she could sing like Kitty Wells. Now I get to hear Kitty Wells. Also ther are some other fine additions.

    Jeff Bridges really did a fine job, and I also like the little entry of Robert Duvall.

    So there you have it. I’m not a music critic but feel I certainly got my money’s worth with both, am glad I have both, and still aprreciate the fact you get in every now and again to toss out something for our consideration.

    We shall see in a few days if this movie wins some nice Academy Awards. I’ll be watching!

  5. I saw this great film while I was back in Tennessee. I saw it with three other ladies and I was surprised that they did not love it as much as I did. I thought everyone was wonderful and I truly enjoyed the singing. I am so glad I am not alone in my appreciation for “Crazy Heart”.

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