Jeff Bridges mounted the Hollywood stage on Oscar© night and gave the elegantly-groomed proceedings an ebullient kick in the butt. He had reason to celebrate: breathing life into ancient movie archetypes is no small feat. The lone drifter with a dark past and inexplicably irresistible allure. The redemptive woman and the love that turns dark abyss to rosy fade-out. Maybe Crazy Heart works because we think we know where this thing’s heading — and then the characters start acting human.
Bridges’s Bad Blake borrows a bow-legged cliche that took root at the very birth of movie westerns. Transposed from gun- to guitar-slinging, the wandering stranger inhabits our imagination of the endless road – a lonely narrative that doomed many of our musical heroes. Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt – the Texas country songwriters and outlaws haunt Crazy Heart. T Bone Burnett uttered not a word in acceptance of the Best Song award and let Ryan Bingham offer thanks. But Burnett brought his Fort Worth running buddy Stephen Bruton to the production, and that made a difference.
Bingham and Burnett wrote “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart‘s award-winning song , and it works fine as a romantic plot summary and makes sense as the “theme song.” But Bruton wrote (with Gary Nicholson) “Fallin’ and Flyin’,” the song that tells us what gave Bad Blake that glint in his eye. It rides shotgun in the soundtrack with Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” a snatch of which fills in all the assumptions we make about Bad Blake’s heydays. It’s my favorite of Jennings’s songs. Waylon’s career was a pointed question posed to Nashville and the countrypolitan sound of the 70s; he couldn’t be more relevant now, and his presence serves as a reproach to the pop/country purveyed by Colin Farrell’s character. The film is dedicated to Bruton and that feels right. If anyone involved lent the project authenticity, it was Bruton. He played with Kris Kristofferson from the early 70s, produced Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Marcia Ball, and heard his songs recorded by Willie, Bonnie Raitt, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Martina McBride… and Waylon, among many others. T Bone Burnett credits him with being the glue that held the music of Crazy Heart together, working with Farrell and Bridges, producing the tracks. He lived just long enough to see the results, but not the acclaim.
The other musical spirit coloring Crazy Heart‘s melancholy edges is Townes Van Zandt. The instinctive lyricism, the painful honesty, the legion of tall tales about outrageous behavior, and a heartbreaking decline after too many nights in too many bars. The movie’s setting in Houston recalls the locale of Van Zandt’s early career and his home base at The Old Quarter. The scenes of collapse, the half-hearted shows and forgotten lyrics, and the relief in being back home, just a guy with a guitar writing songs all echo Townes’s life story. I was fortunate in seeing Townes a couple of times in the late 80s and early 90s. Just Townes, a guitar and a chair, and in pretty good shape. Not the shambling, forgetful, drunk or disdainful performer that built the dark part of the Townes legend. I have seldom witnessed such nakedly honest performances and never touched as deeply.
We hear just a bit of Townes’s well-known song, “If I Needed You,” and the lyrical statement of need and vulnerability underlines the opening of Bad Blake’s heart. But I might have chosen “To Live Is To Fly” as the movie’s theme:
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real.
Some fall on you like a storm,
Sometimes you dig your own.
For video,and an interview with T Bone Burnett, visit Smoke.
Townes: ©2009 Jim Herrington via Flickr
Bruton: via stephenbruton.com