Sunday, February 28, 2010

the yearning of a crazy heart

I knew I would want to see Crazy Heart when I learned of T-Bone Burnett's association with the music. The idea of a country musician as the main character was also intriguing, and the presence of Robert Duvall in the film took me back to the classic Tender Mercies. I watched Jeff Bridges receive the best actor award from the Screen Actor's Guild, and I had a growing sense that this would be a special movie.

It is.

One does not have to appreciate roots music to enjoy Crazy Heart, but it helps. Bad Blake has hit bottom, personally and professionally, but the music is a constant, and in T-Bone Burnett's hands the sound is pitch perfect. Performing in a bowling alley to a gathering of fans who know the words to every lyric, Bad (Bridges) makes it through the set, but one has the sense that life cannot continue in this way. It gets better--he reconnects with a performer, now a star, whom he had earlier mentored---their relationship personifies the gulf between commercially viable and artistically credible country music, and both sides understand the unfairness of it all. This critique is reinforced by the inclusion on the soundtrack of Waylon Jennings’ classic Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” This answer is an obvious “no”.

Bad's relationship with a younger woman, a journalist at work on a story about him, is the subtext for his mostly successful attempt at rehabilitation. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is strong and complex; without giving away too much of the plot, I loved the ambiguity of their friendship/romance. In this respect Crazy Heart is both like and unlike Tender Mercies. The latter was also about a musician who is an alcoholic, who hits bottom and meets a woman whose influence is redemptive. The outcome in this movie, however, is slightly different, and I will allow you to watch the film and reflect on that for yourself. In each film, the ending was appropriate, holding in tension the realities of wounding and healing, loss and love, falling and flying.

It is also true that in each film the music not only serves as background music, but carries the narrative thread of the movie. In Crazy Heart, "Hold On You" conveys Bad's inability to grasp what he is most in need of; "Falling and Flying" reflects on our temptation toward self-destruction; and the theme expresses the world weariness of Bad's pilgrimage through the desert. I was not familiar with Ryan Bingham, who contributed this latter piece (and who has a cameo appearance in the film), but his presence strengthens the music; his voice does resemble Tom Waits, as more than one critic has noted. And yet the emotional core of the film’s music belongs to Bridges, whose performance is nothing short of remarkable. If there is any justice in the world, he will win the Academy Award for best actor next Sunday evening. And the preacher in me must also note the timing of the film's appearance in the popular culture during the season of Lent; Bad Blake's journey is literally one that takes him through the desert in search of a greater meaning.

It It is a hard life, from beginning to end, and what helps us through to the other side is the music, which voices the longings of a crazy heart. For this reason and many others, I love this movie.


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