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‘Crazy Heart’

Sweet music, but with a bitter taste

by Giovanni Fazio

As the music industry continues its precipitous decline, people — generally people with no experience whatsoever in the biz but who sure like ripping all the music they can for free — have no shortage of advice for musicians. Recorded music is dead, they say, so you have to make your money playing live now. Or selling T-shirts. Or charging your fans to have dinner with them. Or the classic “music shouldn’t be about the money anyway,” as if musicians don’t need to pay the rent like everyone else.

The examples such people bring up are inevitably The Rolling Stones or Madonna or Radiohead, whose careers bear as much resemblance to the average musician’s as Bill Gates’ career does to the average programmer. But no matter, the rippers aren’t really concerned with the musicians’ welfare anyway, they simply want some platitudes to cling to so they don’t have to feel guilty about basically screwing the artists they claim to love by stealing their music.

I’d suggest that all those torrent-site freeloaders — as well as those of you who just dig a great movie — take a look at “Crazy Heart,” which portrays something pretty close to the day-to-day, gig-to-gig struggle faced by so many musicians.

This low-key but infinitely likable film has Jeff Bridges as a not-quite washed-up country & western singer named Bad Blake, reduced to schlepping it around from town to town in a beat-up old Chevy, staying in flea-bitten motel rooms and playing such glamorous venues as bowling alleys. When you’re 25, the prospect of this leading to eventual fame and fortune can keep you going, but when you’re Bad’s age (57), the illusions are gone, and it’s only the bottle that offers solace; not a great long-term solution.

Crazy Heart
Rating
Director Scott Cooper
Run Time 111 minutes
Language English

Yet “Crazy Heart” is not just a “my my, hey hey” bummer about burning out on the road; with Jeff Bridges as your lead, he brings charm, humor, and a slovenly dignity to even the most hopeless scoundrel, as fans of “The Big Lebowski” already know. (As does the Academy; Bridges won Best Actor at the Oscars this year.) This is an actor who you never sense is acting; he has that uncanny magician’s ability to sell it without ever revealing the trick.

“How ya doing, Bad?” asks a former bandmate: “Worse,” growls Bad. So, where do all your songs come from, asks an interviewer. “Life, unfortunately.” Bridges’ whiskey-soaked singer has a bitter streak, but one that’s as speckled with self-deprecating irony as his beard is with gray.

Loosely modeled on outlaw country musicians like Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings, Bad watches his career go down the toilet as more mainstream, watered-down country-rockers — like his former protege, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), play the stadiums. Sweet is a pretty-boy singer, but he doesn’t have the songs, and asks Bad to write for him; Bad likes that idea about as much yesterday’s hangover.

Part of the film is exploring the difference between generational values; the rough-hewn integrity and authenticity (and hard living) of an earlier wave vs. the slick and polished insincerity of market-driven music. Beyond the music, though, is a story about whether it’s possible to crawl back up from rock bottom. As Bad’s alcoholism gets worse — at one point, he runs off stage midsong to puke in the back alley, before returning to finish the song — he also finds himself rejuvenated by feeling some real love for single mom/journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Bad sees a glimpse of happiness that would involve some stability, and blossoms in the company of Jean’s 4-year-old boy, Buddy. (Bad’s own grown son wants nothing to do with him.) But, as in “The Wrestler,” sometimes a man finds a way to blow his one last chance to turn things around. While not as dark as that film, “Crazy Heart” takes a bittersweet view, suggesting that sometimes doing the right thing just isn’t enough.

Director Scott Cooper — an actor and writer who debuts as a director here — works off an 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb (with a title from a Hank Williams song). Cooper has a nice laconic feel to his editing, moving the story along like a good slurry conversation after a bottle of pinot, as opposed to a pot of coffee. He also had the good sense to have T. Bone Burnett pen the songs that fill the movie (and it is Bridges and Farrell doing the vocals), and it could well pass muster on an album.

“Crazy Heart,” unlike “The Wrestler” (but very much like “Clean”), never really builds to one big cathartic moment. Like life, there are a bunch of small ones, and only later do you realize, damn, that was it, right there, right then. The best movies teach you to be attuned to such fluctuations in life and relationships, on the screen and off; this is one of them.