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Country music film has plenty of ‘Heart’

 

 
There’s a scene early in “Crazy Heart” where Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are discussing country music. She is interviewing him for a local paper, and they are discussing who is “real country.” And somehow, while ”Crazy Heart” is filled with almost every imaginable cliché about country music there is, Bad Blake and his story still qualify as “real country.”

Almost everyone familiar with country music is familiar with Bad Blake and his maudlin story. It is the subject of many movies about country music, and endless country music songs. Bad Blake is a washed up old singer-songwriter, driving from town to town in his beat-up truck with his guitar in the back, only to play some of the smallest joints imaginable. He is also an alcoholic. Yet things start to change when he meets a young woman on the road.

What sets “Crazy Heart” apart from countless other depictions of the same character is its relentless conviction. All the elements of this lifestyle are very real to Bad Blake and those around him. He barely has ten dollars in his wallet and, to survive, will play for next to nothing. Taking comfort in cheap whiskey and women, the only thing that seems to break through the painful mediocrity of Bad’s life is the young reporter who interviews him, and subsequently ends up spending the night.

About half of “Crazy Heart” is concerned with Bad’s relationship with Jean. What they share is more than just a one-night-stand. They spend so much time together that they become functioning parts of each other’s lives.

The other half of the film is concerned with Bad’s alcoholism. While director Scott Cooper avoids making a moral statement about drinking, it is clear that Bad’s problem is hurting both himself and those around him.

Much of this world comes to life through the exceptional performances of the cast. Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake is particularly effective, both understated and heart breaking in his portrayal of a man on the edge. The character is a pastiche of various real-life country musicians (including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson). Yet Bridges pulls the roll off with such grace that not only does he avoid caricature, he makes it seem like this story has never happened before.

Although largely a character study, “Crazy Heart” traces Bad Blake’s struggle to regain credibility in the realm of music. Although, by the film’s start, his career is in the gutter, quitting is never an option for the beleaguered musician. Even when playing the smallest venues, Bad performs as if he was in front of thousands, and his audiences can see this. He finally gets a break from his manager, who offers Bad a spot as an opening act for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s former musical partner.

It is obvious that, at some point, Bad and Tommy had some venomous feud, which led to their parting ways. But this reason is never clearly revealed to the audience, and it’s safe to assume that, while important to both of them at one point, it isn’t important anymore. Tommy is grateful for Bad’s appearance at his show, even leaving Bad a case of his favorite whiskey in his dressing room. Farrell beautifully portrays a man whose relationship with Bad is on the mend, but hopeful. 

The supporting figures in the film are also quite impressive. Gyllenhaal’s Jean is tender and vulnerable, providing one of the few palpable sources of peace for Bad. Robert Duvall plays Bad’s longtime friend Wayne. Fresh off his turn in “The Road,” Duvall is a rock of Gibraltar of sorts, emoting compassion and sincerity. Through his weary demeanor, one can sense that Wayne has already seen Bad at his worst and pulled him through. But ultimately, it is Bridges who shines at the center of the film.

The soundtrack is also incredible, particularly for those who like country music. Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams appear, as do both Bridges and Farrell, who provide their own voices on several of the album’s stand-out tracks. The songs have a passion about them which makes it believable that they are from the world of the film.

Ultimately, “Crazy Heart” takes its audience on a familiar journey as if for the first time. The story is not the attraction, but rather the passion with which that story is told.

Nick Ortolani can be reached at nortolan@student.umass.edu.

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