Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is perhaps no other actor working today that falls under the title of ‘legend’ in the way that Jeff Bridges does. Maybe it’s because of the reputation of The Big Lebowski, but the actor exudes such an air of laid-back cool that sometimes one gets the impression that it’s his world and we’re just the ones living in it.
After decades of working in Hollywood, amassing critical acclaim, an adoring audience, and an incredible body of work, it was for Crazy Heart that Bridges finally received an Academy Award for his efforts. It was at the 2010 ceremony and, as was the case over the last couple of years for awards favourite films, he did so for playing a singer. Where most films tend to enjoy tracking the initial success of musicians and what they do once they are big before unreeling along the way, Crazy Heart begins with its lead character Otis ‘Bad’ Blake at the tail end of his career.
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The opening twenty minutes tells us everything we need to know about the character, and in such a short space of time that it almost feels like a perfectly formed short film. There is a luminous capturing of the American landscape with its never-ending blue skies and orange sunsets before we settle in on Blake’s annoyance that the venue he is performing at is a bowling alley, in a small town where everyone recognises him from his glorious past.
Right away Bridges captures the drunken nature of the character, the innate sense of someone whose best days are long behind him and who doesn’t want to take the time to relive them with an adoring audience who want him to play the hits and nothing but. It wouldn’t be a problem, but his drunken stupor means he even struggles with that, dodging off the stage to throw up before drunkenly returning to perform. The laconic nature of Bridges means that this is a role he was born to play. It’s a million miles away from the slicker demeanour of his previous foray into playing a musician in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and more in line with The Big Lebowski, the difference being that at least Blake makes the effort even if it proves hard work.
Scott Cooper’s direction is subtle and unfussy throughout, which makes it a joy to watch. It’s one of those movies which just sits back and captures its moments in a lovely manner, but the atmosphere is so potent that you can smell the aura of booze and cigarettes coming off Bridges throughout. There are tropes and cliches though, even if the film does interesting thematic things with them. The central love story of the film sees Blake find new love with a reporter sent to profile him. The character of Jean is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and is considerably younger than Bridges. It might be easy to roll the eyes at first, but this perhaps allows the film to explore its biggest theme away from the smaller stages where Bridges sings so convincingly. Both Red and Jean are at different ages in their lives, but they are still contending with choices they have made and the uncertainty of those decisions as they move forward.
The age gap is considerable, but then one could argue that is the point. The film presents their relationship as one very much against considerable emotional odds. He is drunk, she is driven by both her career and motherhood. She finds a balance, he increasingly doesn’t, a wedge growing between them the more his drinking becomes increasingly uncontrollable. Things reach an end for them when he loses her four-year-old son in a shopping mall after stopping at a bar.
At its heart, this is a film that is very much about addiction. It’s a theme that has recurred in so many stories (both true and fictional) about musicians and artists and yet nothing has captured it in as raw as fashion as Scott Cooper does. It’s not just that he outlays the physical effects it has on Red, but the emotional ones too. The age difference between Otis and Joan perhaps plays into the film’s central portrayal of why, in the end, their courtship has no future, even when Red manages to become clean. The ending of the film itself is very different to the source novel on which it’s based, and yet for any arguments, anyone might want to make about it being changed, it works so well thanks to the added level of poignancy in Bridges and Gyllenhaal’s performances.
The delicate nature of Cooper’s direction means that the story relies deeply on the work of its actors and that final gorgeous scene is as emotional as it comes all because it never relies on easy dramatics. The same goes for its portrayals of musical creation. Those eureka moments that come from so many films and stories of this ilk, whenever songwriters and singers find the lyrics and the tune that the story has in some way been building up, even has a sense of innate sadness. The song that Otis writes, which allows him a second chance at success as a songwriter, is one he only manages to finish crafting because of the dissolution of his relationship with Jean.
While it might be easy to understand any frustrations from those who adored the source material, the ending the film goes for still manages to not sell the story short. To end with Red and Jean reuniting for good would have undersold so much of the story up to that point, but at the very least the way it does end still plays true to its delicate tone, made even more so by the song ‘The Weary Kind’ playing ever so elegantly over the soundtrack (and sung by co-star Colin Farrell no less).
The other central relationship at the heart of the film is that of Otis with his protégé Tommy Steele, played by Farrell, who has now become one of the biggest country stars in America and whose image and commercial nature is the complete opposite to Otis. Otis takes his beaten-up car to gigs, while in comparison Tommy is with a full entourage with buses, elaborate sound set-ups and a younger adoring fan base. Farrell, as always when he’s part of an ensemble, is brilliant and shares great chemistry with Bridges primarily because the script never makes the obvious choices regarding their scenes. It could have so easily opted to make their scenes and their relationship a bitter one, but Tommy frequently respects and loves Otis, and it comes as pleasingly refreshing not to see the film fall into obvious storytelling tropes and ideas.
It is essentially the film in a nutshell. It never makes easy choices. Produced by country music legend T Bone Burnett, who also worked on the music score for Walk the Line, Crazy Heart plays like it’s nestled in between the biopic award friendly stylings of Walk the Line and the darker elements of the 2018 version of A Star is Born.
It’s easy to see a little bit of Bradley Cooper as a younger variation of ‘Bad’ Blake, even down to the mumbling dialogue delivery. Where Cooper’s film has its own moments of distressing darkness, plunging its narrative into a more intense atmosphere compared to the previous versions of the film it’s remaking, Crazy Heart still feels of its own ilk. It’s once again a reminder of the type of film that sometimes feels like it is seldom getting made anymore, unless it has something by which to attach itself in a way that can assure commercial success for a studio. It’s very much the type of thing that one would expect from Fox Searchlight Pictures, a part of the 20th Century Fox empire that feels like is slowly disappearing thanks to the Disney takeover.
It might prove a little slow for some who might want more of the overt gloss of something like A Star is Born or Walk the Line (there is a place for both approaches), but it’s the subtle nature of its storytelling and its bravura and rightly lauded central performance that leaves Crazy Heart stirring in your mind long after that gorgeous final shot has faded to black.