February 11, 2010

Good Country Music From Good Country People

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There are not a lot of people out there playing what’s called “real country music.” As has been tradition, there is a disconnect between the hit machine turning in Nashville, churning out the popular radio music of the time with the twist of a twang and a ten-dollar hat, and the roots music about what it is to live, breathe, work, love and die in the American heartland. And as always, there have been the representatives of the “real country” movement keeping it alive, a thorn in Nashville’s side all along, people like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, the late Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. People occasionally purchase CDs by Nashville legends like Conway Twitty, but it’s the outlaws of traditional country, of roadhouses and honky-tonks, that remain in the popular lexicon for decades. Irony, indeed.

Bad Blake could have run with that crowd, were he not fictional. He, played as iconic by the great Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, among dozens of classic films for the past 30 years) is the protagonist of Crazy Heart, a film about a man who is struggling with deep demons of loneliness, estrangement, old age and severe alcoholism as he fights to keep the real country alive. The film is connected to the pantheon of mythical biopics about real musicians (Ray, The Doors) and the history of character studies (Citizen Kane). Crazy Heart could play out comfortably in a well-worn groove, were it not concerned with the particular tragedy of Bad Blake and the unshakable belief in the fundamental goodness of people.

Bad Blake is introduced on tour in the American southwest, playing to small elderly crowds in bowling alleys. He is introduced as a broke drunk who can’t scrounge up enough to buy one bottle of whiskey to get blasted before playing another full-bodied set. He is in constant battle with his agent (Tom Bower), stagnant in his career and writer’s blocked to boot.

The liquor vendor says the whiskey’s on the house and that his wife is a huge fan. Bad remembers her name and dedicates her favorite song to her on stage before letting the backup band finish as he rushes outside to vomit. The audience pities him, is reviled by him, and then we watch as he, shaking and sick, returns to the stage to finish the song he promised, and his decency and his commitment win us over. He also wins over an older woman in the audience (Beth Grant), if you catch my drift.

In Santa Fe, Bad meets a young woman on the cusp of middle age, journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight), who is beautiful, but hiding some distant pain. She is interested in his story to advance her fledgling writing career, but she also sees some spark of life behind his eyes. The cliché of their love story begins, or does it? She leaves when Bad drunkenly hits on her. It’s only when he passes up a date with a younger woman to finish the story he promised that Jean starts to peer deeper into Bad’s soul, to see the broken man inside the charming old lothario musician. “Where do all those sad songs come from?” she asks him. His reply: “Life, unfortunately.”

After they consummate their undeniable attraction, we are introduced to two more characters who add color to the picture. The first is Jean’s young son Buddy (Jack Nation), who has already won the award for Cutest Little Kid Ever, and is a contender for Cutest Thing Ever. Bad’s interaction with Buddy earns Jean’s trust, even though she knows he’s leaving later in the morning.

The second character is the dark secret in Bad’s life, his old bandmate, currently a heartthrob and country superstar Tommy Sweet (played more than admirably by Colin Farrell, in character actor territory like In Bruges). Bad feels betrayed by Tommy’s success. Bad’s manager wants him to open for Tommy. Tommy’s the arrogant young good-for-nothing who’s been corrupted by fame and is too big for his mentor’s britches, now, right? Darth Vader to his Obi-Wan? Guess again.

We watch Bad’s interactions with Tommy, with the crowd, with his manager, and with Jean and her son. We watch Bridges melt into his character, and how his appearance evokes images of country greats over their prime. We see what exists in the character stratosphere when you put an actor of this caliber into the body and mind of a person with Bad Blake’s ambition and character. This is the movie The Wrestler should have been.

We know Bad’s alcoholism will be his undoing. What we cannot predict is the honesty of his redemption. This doesn’t feel like a Hollywood film. There are no triumphant comebacks or swelling emotional climaxes set to thundering strings. We only have Bad, Jean, Buddy, Tommy, his manager, his estranged son, and later on, his only true friend (Robert Duvall). We only have quiet country songs of pain and strength, written by T Bone Burnett and performed exquisitely, and realistically by Bridges and Farrell. We hear the clang of the guitar strings as Bad drops his instrument in frustration. We feel every retch, we smile at every moment of intimate happiness. We nod and understand the end, seeing it coming, knowing it well, yet feeling somewhat surprised by it anyway.

How nice it is to see a Hollywood film, already buzzing for awards, where what unites all the people is not their flaws (though they have them in spades), but their goodness.

It cannot be stated enough how well this film understands musicians and the art of creating music, the road tour and the combination of exhilaration and heartbreak contained therein, and the personal tales that real country songs aimed to tell before abysmal terms like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” became acceptable in any circle.

5 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir