Oscar watch: Going crazy over 'Crazy Heart'
I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having a serious bout of trepidation when I headed off the other night to see "Crazy Heart," the new Fox Searchlight film that stars Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a hard-drinking, faded country star relegated to one-night gigs at bowling alleys and dingy saloons. After all, if there's ever a subject that been mined deeply in movies, it's the saga of the self-destructive country music singer. With so many real-life role models, from Hank Williams to George Jones to Waylon Jennings to Steve Earle (and about 100 others), it's a trajectory that's hard to avoid.
And after you've seen Robert Duvall as the broken-down Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies," you know that it's a hard act to follow. But I'm here to say that "Crazy Heart" is the real deal. It's a beautifully told story (by first-time writer-director Scott Cooper) made even better by a terrific performance by Bridges, who does a wonderful job of showing us a good man who's hit bottom, having run through five or so wives and boozed away all the money he made when he was riding high. If Cooper was worried about any comparisons with "Tender Mercies," he doesn't show it, especially since he cast Duvall in a nice small role as a bar owner who doubles as Bridges' fishing buddy. Maggie Gyllenhaal costars as a vivacious small-town reporter who wheedles the skittish Blake into giving her a series of interviews, which turn into a surprisingly affecting relationship.
I'll leave the serious reviews to the critics, but as a country music fan, I was especially impressed by the film's attention to musical detail. It's pretty obvious that Bridges' performance will catapult him into the best actor Oscar race, but it's also the kind of performance that will impress musicians with the way it captures the idleness of life on the road as well as the angst of a performer who sees how his core audience has blithely deserted him, opting for a new kind of air-brushed, "American Idol" style of country over the rough-edged grit of Bad Blake's era.
Bridges' Blake is full of echoes of a host of old country icons. When I was a young rock writer, I spent a lot of time in smoky clubs, interviewing some of the unadorned original C&W luminaries. Once, preparing to interview Jerry Lee Lewis at a club in Memphis in the 1980s, I put my tape recorder on the table. Glistening with sweat from the pills and alcohol in his system, Jerry Lee said, "Son, a tape recorder is a dangerous weapon," reached around behind his back and pulled out a pistol, which he set lightly on the table, explaining "Now we're even."
Bridges has a little bit of that edge in his performance too. In fact, there were times when he seemed to be channeling a big chunk of the outlaw country vibe from the 1970s and '80s. To see him on stage singing, sweat dripping off his beard and seeping through his open-neck shirt, is to see someone who's a dead ringer for the ghost of Waylon Jennings, whose own personal life -- booze, cocaine and lots of wives -- isn't that far from the character Bridges plays in the film.
The music in the film is killer old-school country, written by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, a Texas musician who died earlier this year after spending nearly 40 years playing with Kris Kristofferson (who many will say Bridges resembles at times in the film as well). And as if acknowledging its debt to Jennings, the film has a scene scored to Jennings' own "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way."
The film opens in New York and L.A. in mid-December for an Oscar-qualifying run before going wider after the first of the year. The highest praise I can offer is that "Crazy Heart's" music wonderfully embodies the spirit of the film and the film itself captures the bittersweet, soulful life force of country music.
Photo of Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart" from Fox Searchlight