Movie Review: Crazy Heart

2009. Starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Directed by Scott Cooper.

I’ve probably watched a total of 15 minutes of American Idol over the years, usually early in the season when they focus on those who perform, well, less Idol-like. Those not-ready-for-prime-time singers get a inordinate amount of airtime — enough so the audience can relish the dream-crushing coups de grace from the show’s judges. Whether the early cuts take their discouragement in tears or by rejecting the judgment they lusted for minutes earlier, they have to accept that they have failed. Their belief in themselves has betrayed them.

I’m guessing that most of those rejected abandon their dreams as a result of their nationwide embarrassment. That’s too bad, because a real artist would find inspiration in that rejection, defiant reinvention in that condemnation. They should find pain in every rejection, and their development as a real artist — not one stamped out of the standard reality-TV mold — should be built on steps of heartache.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges in a well-deserved Oscar-winning role) is a throwback country-western singer, one who takes little phrases, assembles them into rhymes, backs them with a fingerpicking and steel guitar, and sends shivers down the backs of his fans. But he’s become preoccupied with money, with the two-month tour his agent has put together, the grim bowling alleys and bars where he finds an audience, and the envy he feels toward a protege (Colin Farrell) who has eclipsed him. He’s also an alcoholic who has lost faith in his own talents. He grinds it out, with little joy, until he meets Jane (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a writer, and falls for her.

Bad has earned his nickname through the traditional vices, and he’s also a long-lost father who has never spoken to his son. He drowns his loneliness, his disappointment in whiskey, and seems doomed to sabotage a career revival. He returns to Jane and befriends her son and imagines a meaningful future, but his self-destructive nature won’t allow it. Bridges plays Bad as the grizzled, chain-smoking outlaw hero familiar to country-music fans, but he’s not a likeable character until he tries for something out of his reach.

I had hoped that Crazy Heart would focus more on his career, the triumph of authenticity over phoniness, the satisfying scratching-out of a tune that would redeem the broken hero. When I saw the romance coming, I was ready for the film to go off the rails. I was wrong. There are few movies willing to portray romance this realistically. His pursuit of Jane reawakens something inside him. The physical distance between them, the regret and, of course, the spell of the bottle all combine to force the songwriter to huddle down with his guitar and try to tame the awful, demanding desires by expressing them. When he returns again and again to a fragment of a song, he knows he’s onto something.

Two musical aspects make Crazy Heart even better. The Bad Blake songs were written by Ryan Bingham (who has a small role), which are appropriate for the aging honky-tonk singer, including an old hit with the defining line “Funny how falling feels like flyin’, for a little while.” The film’s soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett, and includes the Louvin Brothers and Buck Owens. Appropriately, in an odd scene featuring a hot-air balloon, we hear “If I Needed You” by Townes Van Zandt, the late, great songwriter and singer who squeezed every ounce of pain from his talent before drinking himself to death in 1997.

In the end, it’s not the tickets that Bad Blake wants to sell, or the fans he hopes to win over — it’s the hurt he wants to reveal, the discovery of love and desire he wants to share, that makes him an artist. Baring his pain and doubt, he manages to reach out and touch something in everyone listening. The singer who shares his true self and doesn’t give up will never lack for fans cheering him on. Something those rejected on reality TV should remember.

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