15 March, 2010Issue 11.5Film & TVMusic

Email This Article Print This Article

Country Music and Conformity

Naseem Badiey

foerScott Cooper
Crazy Heart
Butcher’s Run Films, 2009
111 minutes

In his 2010 Oscar-winning adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s novel, Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper takes his audience on a musical journey toward redemption. Sitting in the theatre, it is as if you are in the pew of a Baptist church, in turn tapping your feet, singing at the altar, and weeping. Though it is as sentimental as a sermon, the film leaves you feeling, well, saved.

Beneath this straightforward narrative of deliverance, however, lies a more ambivalent message about the pursuit of art in America. In grappling with issues of artistic integrity, emotional stability, and financial success, Crazy Heart speaks to the challenges of leading a creative life in the modern world. Yet in attempting to resolve the protagonist’s artistic struggle by molding him into a music industry professional, the film ends up offering a narrowly commercial vision of artistic success.

Set in the dusty landscape of the small-town American Southwest, Crazy Heart chronicles the decline and recovery of a singer-songwriter, “Bad Blake”, played by Jeff Bridges. After years on the road, Blake is stewing comfortably at the bottom of a whisky bottle. Though sunken to performing in bowling alleys, he is so besotted he doesn’t care. In a performance that has garnered him his first Academy Award, 61-year-old Bridges depicts the plight of the damned in a masterful display of nonchalance and pathos. Vomiting into a garbage can during a show, Blake’s sunglasses fall off his face into the bin. His awkward attempt to retrieve them makes you cringe and smile, and leaves you exhausted with empathy. So, it seems, are all the people in his life. Played by a powerhouse cast that includes Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the supporting characters are somewhat forgettable bystanders to Bridges’ delightful wreckage.

If it were not for Bridges’ singular performance, Crazy Heart would be yet another film about a musician struggling with personal demons. Instead, his portrayal of Blake’s decline transcends the hackneyed story line to deliver a subtle exploration of personal failure. This film relishes in the failures of Bad Blake, tracing the contours of each misstep and humiliation with vengeance. In the three decades of his career, Blake has abandoned his wife and child, fled from responsibility, and wasted what limited success he achieved; all of this, it is implied, has been an attempt to escape from himself, from the confines of a narrowly defined masculinity, and the enslavement of music industry success. When asked his real name by a young female reporter (Gyllenhaal), he quips: “I’m Bad Blake. I was born Bad. When I die, my tombstone will have my real name on it. Until then, I’m just going to stay Bad.”

What makes this voyeuristic tour of an aging man’s failures fun rather than depressing is the music. Crazy Heart would not be nearly as stirring without the power of its country western musical elements. Bridges does all his own singing, and even Colin Farrell surprises with a great voice. In films that feature song there is always the danger that the music will overshadow the acting. In the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, for example, Joaquin Phoenix’s reinvention of Cash’s classic songs steals the show. The music in Crazy Heart, by contrast, brings the performances to life. Lyrics such as “I used to be somebody / Now I am somebody else”, convey echoes of Blake’s long-lost wit. What is more, the quality of the music makes his artistic struggle believable.

Musical director T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the soundtracks for Walk the Line and for the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou, co-wrote seven songs for the film, six of them with fellow Texan Stephen Bruton. Bridges, Burnett, and Bruton first jammed together with Kris Kristofferson on the set of Heaven’s Gate in 1978. Both the soundtrack of Crazy Heart and Bridges’ performance benefit from their decades of friendship and collaboration.

While Cobb’s novel was based on the life of veteran Texas singer and bandleader Hank Thompson, Bruton (who died in May 2009) was the inspiration for the cinematic portrayal of Bad Blake. Bridges borrows much from Bruton’s life in his construction of Bad Blake, including his rejection of the Nashville music industry, the Chevy Suburban he drove around the country, and the water bottle he urinated in during long trips. These details, and countless others, make Blake an incredibly believable character despite his occasionally exaggerated antics.

The greatest musical feat of the film is the featured song, “The Weary Kind”, a heartbreaking ballad co-written by Burnett and Ryan Bingham, a Texan rodeo bull rider turned singer-songwriter, which won the Oscar for best original song. In the vulnerability of Bingham’s gravelly voice, you feel the pain of giving yourself to something completely, and losing out:

Your heart’s on the loose
You rolled them seven’s with nothing lose
And this ain’t no place for the weary kind.

Like this song, the film beautifully conveys the emotional journey of creation and the pain of failure.

Despite its nuanced depiction of artistic struggle, however, the film’s plot lays out a narrow path to success. The lyrics of a duet performed by Blake and Tommy Sweet, “Fallin’ Feels Like Flyin’”, communicate the troubling message that following one’s own path, whether artistically or personally, exacts a price, which leads to decline or fallin’.

I never meant to hurt no one
I just had to have my way
If there is such a thing as too much fun
This must be the price you pay
Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’
For a little while

From early in the film, it is clear that Blake’s triumph is not going to be achieving success on his terms. At the end of a long road of selfishness and narcissism, he sobers up, realizes his mistakes, and makes amends in the hope that the opportunities he lost can be retrieved and relationships he destroyed can be repaired. After attaining catharsis, he drops the nickname “Bad” and reassumes his given name, “Otis”—an awkward effort in contrition that shatters the rebel façade completely.

The problem is that Blake’s true self is a sell-out. Otis sells his best song to a younger, more beautiful megastar named Tommy Sweet, played as an earnest mentee by Colin Farrell. Bad doesn’t care about the money earned in the deal, offering it to the child of his former lover. Nevertheless, he becomes a “winner” when he starts to play the music industry game, showing up to gigs on time, listening to his agent, selling his music. In the space of a few scenes, an artfully crafted authenticity is replaced by a sentimental senior citizen with a soft spot for children.

While the film stops short of delivering a perfectly happy ending (Blake learns that relationships can’t be repaired), it ultimately conforms, like its protagonist, to industry conventions. Blake’s redemption is paralleled by commercial success. Overnight he goes from being a has-been to a music-industry veteran in an example of public relations shapeshifting. The transformation of the film’s anti-hero, Bad Blake, however, is not entirely convincing. Bad’s lonely messed-up life offers more to identify with, and certainly more authenticity, than the fantasy of Otis’s sudden overwhelming success and self-acceptance.

Crazy Heart offers a touching portrayal of the costs exacted by a creative life. In depicting the journey of an artist as he grows into his scarred and sagging skin, the film delivers painful universal messages: life doesn’t work out the way you plan; the damage of the past can’t be repaired. The subtlety and importance of Blake’s personal and professional struggle, and the inescapability of acceptance it conveys, however, get obscured in a plot that tries to tie up loose ends—and does so, as one might expect from an Oscar-winning film, with an optimistic dose of American individualism. The final message we take away is that success is there for the taking, if you are willing to play the game.

Naseem Badiey is reading for a DPhil in Politics at Pembroke College, Oxford.