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The Promise of Redemption in the World of Rockstars

Walking out of the theater after viewing Crazy Heart, I knew I needed to write about it, at least to help figure out why I loved it, if nothing else. Knowing that Curt also appreciated the film and for some of the same reasons, I asked him to write a review with me. There are a couple possible spoilers in this review.

Stephen: With a film as rich as this one, there are many areas one could spend time writing about. The casting, of course, is probably what has been given the most attention, and for good reason. Jeff Bridges is entirely convincing as the aging country singer Bad Blake, down on his luck, and the movie is worth watching for him alone. The chemistry between Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal is great, showing us a picture of a relationship between a “rock star” and a girl who obviously grew up on his music. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good as the hot young country singer who was given his start by Bad Blake. And I loved the scenes with Robert Duvall, Bad’s best friend.

Curt: You are so right, Stephen. Granted, Bridges star shines brightly, capturing our attention to such an extent that we may sometimes miss the other performances, but the casting is excellent.

Stephen: The music in the film has been talked about a lot too, which should come as no surprise with the incomparable T Bone Burnett in charge. He writes and co-writes some great songs here, and I was glad to hear one song in movie by Sam Phillips, T Bone’s ex-wife and one of my favorite singers.

Curt: I thought the music did what it was supposed to do, provide believability. The songs were good enough and hooky enough that it was easy to believe they were once hit records. When I heard the first few notes of Jeff Bridges singing, the not-quite-in-tune gravelly voiced vocal timbre at first made me concerned that the musical element may damage the credibility of the film. But as his first song continued, I realized that Bridges sounded exactly like what I’d expect a damaged, long time alcoholic country singer to sound like. If you’ve ever heard George Jones in a live, late in his career performance, you may have an idea of what I mean.

Stephen: I’d have to say, though, there was one thing I liked above everything else about the film, and that’s what I want to spend more time talking about here: the glimpse Crazy Heart gives us into the world of music superstars, both at the height of their career and when they’re down on their luck. Working as an arranger and music copyist in the Nashville music industry, I get occasional glimpses into that world. Watching Bad Blake play for a packed house at a corner bar, seeing how he related to the crowd and how he performed, I thought of the time I was in the studio with legendary rock singer Bob Seger. Seger has a very charismatic personality, filling up every room he walks into, taking everything in, walking up and introducing himself to each new person who enters. The studio we were in, a beautiful old converted church building on Music Row, doesn’t allow smoking, but because Bob Seger is, well, Bob Seger, he was puffing away, seemingly going through a full pack of cigarettes during the string session alone, standing in front of the control board waving his arms, copying the conductor’s motions and losing himself in the music. That album, Face the Promise, was Seger’s first album in 11 years after a long sabbatical to spend time with his family that started after an accident where he was charged with driving impaired, something else I was reminded of during another point in Crazy Heart.

Curt: You dog. I love Bob Seger and I am jealous (“On a long and lonely highway, east of Omaha…”). Great story, man. As you know, Stephen, I worked in country radio for several years, which also gave me material with which I could measure the credibility of an on-screen, over-the-hill country singer. At KSO/Des Moines, we annually sponsored “The Great Country Concert,” a free appreciation concert for our listeners, which always “sold out” Vets Auditorium in Des Moines. We always brought in five or six “country stars.” Because we were on a budget, we could only afford those “country stars” that were on the way down or on the way up. We caught Reba McEntire on the way up, but sadly, most were on the way down. For many of these “country stars,” it had been many years since they played in front of 12,000 people. Casual discussions, in-studio interviews, parties, meet and greet events, and all those concerts I emceed at less than desirable venues, provided an up-close view of the insecurities and foibles of men on the decline. Like Bad, people learn how to use “what they got.” Watch Bad in the liquor store, using the perception of himself as a star to score a bottle of booze. Exploiting stardom long after a careful observer knows it’s no longer stardom is part and parcel of this career stage. Partly, I suppose, they do it to reinforce to themselves that they really are a star. And partly, because they really can’t afford the booze.

Stephen: I’m sure those concerts were fun, but probably also a bit depressing. I had the chance recently to work on some horn charts for Reba for a performance on the Grand Ole Opry, and she still sounds every bit as good as she did back when she was starting out. Watching Colin Farrell plays Tommy Sweet, a young country star, I immediately thought of the couple times I’ve been in the studio with Big Kenny (of Big and Rich). Farrell, contrary to what one might at first think, is a perfect fit for the role, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Big Kenny while watching Tommy Sweet, seeing them act and respond to others in a similar fashion. At the same time, watching Bad Blake play with Buddy, the young son of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, I thought of the times I’ve watched Big Kenny play with his own son during the breaks in the string sessions, an interaction that has a different quality, to my eyes, when the adult is “famous.” Maybe it has something to do with the adult knowing the kid won’t judge them, that they’ll be accepted as who they are and for simply being there. Maybe that’s why this struck me as very authentic storytelling.

Curt: I think it took great vision to cast Colin Farrell in his role, and in retrospect, it was brilliant. Tigerland proved that Farrell could do a credible drawl, leaving his usually thick Dublin accent behind for a Texas drawl. Further, there’s a sort of knowing confidence in his bearing, which is ideal for the role of a rising country star. Plus, the pony tail. In the last twenty years, if a director wants to use a hairstyle that demonstrates the character is hip or is trying really hard to be hip, the pony tail is the obvious choice. None other than Al Pacino, after working with Farrell in The Recruit called him the best actor of his generation. While that may have been a slight overstatement, I can appreciate Pacino’s point. One of the ways in which this film was not predictable: I expected Tommy Sweet to be a half-arrogant opportunist. To the contrary, he was a nice guy that—like us—seemed to truly care about the man that gave him his start in country music.

Stephen: Yep. That’s why I was reminded of Big Kenny. The first thing that becomes apparent as you watch the story unfold is Bad Blake’s alcohol addiction, and we know from the start that things can’t continue the way they are. Something has to change, a brick wall will be hit. What could be a bigger cliché than a big star hitting rock bottom because of an addiction and then climbing out of the hole, right? In lessor hands, this movie would have made that the focus of the story and subsequently been relegated to late night showings on the Hallmark channel, but Scott Cooper, in his directorial debut, realizes we don’t need another telling of that story, rescuing it from being a series of clichés and telling a genuinely moving story. I couldn’t help but think, towards the end of the story, of another great musician I’ve had the chance to work with, Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame), doing all the music preparation for several of his recent tours. Trey hit bottom several years ago with an arrest for a drug addiction that resulted in him realizing he had to make changes. Since that time, I’ve sat in a studio on Music Row in Nashville, listening to Trey practice with a string quintet a concerto he cowrote for electric guitar and orchestra with a friend of mine, Don Hart. I’ve hung around backstage at Carnegie Hall after a performance of that concerto with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve heard him play with Phish at Bonnaroo in front of 75,000 fans, with none other than Bruce Springsteen joining him for a couple songs.

So I know what redemption looks like in that context. I have seen up close what it means when a rock star realizes they can’t continue on the road they’re on, make changes, and the music they make after that. This movie is the best portrayal I’ve seen of that story on the big screen, and it’s why I’ll continue to recommend it to everyone I know.

Curt: Yes. And I think one of the touchstones of Crazy Heart is the extent to which we root for him. We ache for his redemption, knowing that it’s not guaranteed, even in the movies. When Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character’s son Buddy started wandering around in the bar, I remember physically moving to the edge of my seat, seeing what might be coming, and feeling the urge to send up a prayer that Bad won’t let it happen. When a viewer has the urge to pray for a movie character, that says something about its effectiveness. Somehow—and this is the mark of a great actor paired with a great script—we see the good in Bad Blake. And we want him to be better. As a believer, it’s one of life’s honest to goodness joys, observing the recovery of a human soul. Nobody is Bad and everybody is Bad. It’s a human story and Jeff Bridges helps us see that with his performance.

Stephen, thanks for inviting me to participate in your review!

Stephen: Thanks, Curt!


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