On ‘Crazy Heart’ and not stating the obvious
Last night, I found myself explaining what makes Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth) such an exceptional writer. It’s not the stories she tells, it’s the stories she doesn’t tell. Y’all have heard me mention this before, if you regularly read what I write here, as I talked about leaving things out when I took a swing toward dissecting “Pancho and Lefty.” There’s more strength in silence sometimes than there is in constant action and dramatic tension. Sometimes, the way a character’s shoulders and throat respond when another character enters the scene, before any words or eye contact are exchanged, can tell you more about their relationship than would relaying the entire story. The same would go for that part of the song where the instruments pause before the lyrics enter. If you catch my drift.
This is something I appreciate, as a student of fiction writing, as a songwriter, a critic, and as a compulsive consumer of the arts. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, what makes a story a good story – a song, a good song – and, this afternoon, I watched it play out in the form of Crazy Heart.
For those unfamiliar, Crazy Heart is the story of a long-in-the-tooth country singer whose stage name is Bad Blake. He’s depressed, washed up, lonesome, un-understood, and a fairly functional (I use the word very loosely) alcoholic. Enter Janie (a character seemingly created specifically for Maggie Gyllenhal), niece of some piano player dude in Santa Fe, and a local journalist tasked with interviewing Blake. She’s also at least a generation, if not moreso, younger than him, although I found that tidbit more or less irrelevant. Despite their lives being almost exactly opposite each other – or perhaps because of that fact – they develop an unexpected attachment, fall in love, frustration and confusion ensues, and the rest I’ll leave to you to find out when you go watch the movie yourself (as you should).
I will say, however, that Crazy Heart is good because of all the stories it doesn’t tell. The point is not how Bad became Bad, but where he is now, and what he does next. It takes the whole film for him to figure that out, and the slow, quiet, thoughtful, painful, drawn-out days between when we meet Blake and when it starts to make sense for him play out the way days do when you’re lonesome, not understood, depressed, and drunk.
Same goes for Janie, whose story is almost non-existent here. I found myself resenting the tear-drenched, whiny-ish woman role, then realized that, the more Bad fell for her and opened up to her, the more we saw of her strong, solid side – the things which no doubt drew him to her in the first place. We learned about Janie the way he did, first seeing her as a young, blushing girl, then discovering her depth just around the time it was almost too late, before her story could really be told.
Then, of course, there’s the music (check out the soundtrack on Amazon). There could have been a little more of the music, if you ask me, since that’s the only place we really hear or see Bad Blake be honest and comfortable. But it serves the story even more that the music only comes in spurts, and almost nowhere do we get through an entire song before we’re cut away to more images of Bad Blake messing up something else. The soundtrack, though, is beyond notable. Bridges and Colin Farrell (who plays Blake’s young protege, Tommy Sweet) do a great job of delivering believable, provocative vocal performances.
Add to that the background, which features tunes by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Buck Owens, Lightnin’ Hopkins, etc. The songs, in fact, play as much of a shaping role in this film as does the story itself – filling in where Blake isn’t willing to divulge, providing solace from a cruel and thankless day-to-day. Their story is simple and understated, true to the old school of country music, which tells stories without giving it all away. If a true country song were a movie, this would be it.
About a third of the way into the film, Janie asks Blake (and I’m paraphrasing here because I was watching intently, not taking notes), In this world of commercial contemporary country, who’s real country anymore? Blake dodges, she presses, he dodges again. Some things don’t need to be said.