I've never really understood the appeal of old country music. Guys like Waylon Jennings, whose name I know only from the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, twanging away on their gee-tar and sipping back grandpa's whiskey. For most of my life it has been the one type of music, along with death metal, that actually irritated me. The storytelling in it is bland, the music is three chords, and the lyrics are sappy and melodramatic. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?
I'd heard the buzz around Crazy Heart even before its star, and one of my favourite actors, Jeff Bridges, finally won his first Oscar for his role in it. Even then, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to see it. If I didn't get old country music, why would I want to see a (fictionalized) movie about an old country music star? I wasn't sure that I saw the relevance. (This is what happens when you don't have to review movies as part of your job.) A couple of friends encouraged me to check it out however, and so I sucked it up and prepared for yet another boring, two hour ride into the latest bio-musical pic.
Boy, was I wrong. From the opening scene, I became immersed somehow into this culture, into this old country lifestyle that I'd never understood. The best movies all do this, of course, but some cultures are more difficult to translate to the screen, and even more when the translation is contingent on a type of music that typically needs its surroundings as much as it needs its musicians. But the seamless storytelling and presence of Bridges, who is mostly unrecognizable throughout, provide all that's needed to make the film, and its subject, completely accessible.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a former old country star, a la Jennings, who hasn't recorded a hit in a long time, and the movie draws us in as we follow Bad into the contradiction that is the world of country music. There's the claustrophobic night life, coloured bright and smoky in seedy bars and hotels and backend bowling alleys. Here the people come, looking to him for reminders of past glories, of dreams past and dreams lost, dreams that fade in time but somehow resonate in the clear baritone of an old man's voice and an old man's song. When the songs fade, and the night along with it, we're thrust into the harsh daylight, a transition made difficult by the wide open spaces and burning light of the desert sun, a sun that seems to crackle onscreen with every aching step of Bad's weathered cowboy boots and every crunch of gravel beneath the tires of his old, worn out truck. By turns his stubbornness and sadness, his anger and hope, percolate and boil over, all of it in tune with the contradictions of the land and the music, between the soft kisses of moonlight and withering noon glare of the Texan sun. Like a carefully balanced song, we feel the inevitable change sweeping through a life that must somehow come to a decision, one that will dictate whether his music will follow his weary heart or if somehow he will find the courage to strum new chords in the future.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is here, and while her intelligence and "old-youngness" make her the perfect choice for this role, her character needed perhaps an extra scene or two. We can surmise a few things from what she says, but in a film as deliberate as Crazy Heart, it should be in the script. Colin Farrell has a small but important role here as well, with an understated but engrossing performance that reminds you what a great actor he can be when he's not making blockbusters. He needs to do more roles like this one.
Ultimately, the movie rests on Bridges, and he delivers one of the best performances of his career. He's more open here than we're used to, more vulnerable than we've seen him since his terrific performance nearly twenty years ago in The Fabulous Baker Boys. It must be said however, that this is not another Ray; it is not merely a showpiece for a great actor. Crazy Heart, at its core, is a story about life, about what happens when we stop believing in the future and when our yesterdays surpass our tomorrows.
I think that's why I never liked old country music. It always seemed so focused on the past. But maybe I missed the point. Maybe the idea is that thinking about the past is not only a good thing, but necessary, if we want to find our future. Too hopeful? Too simple? Perhaps, but then, there's power in the simple answers, so long as we're willing to listen. After watching Crazy Heart, I might finally be ready.
****1/2 stars (Out of Five)
Copyright Stephen Burns 2010