Real as a Jug of Urine, Subtle as an Unfinished Song
by Ashley Morton
Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is an aging country musician’s wake-up call — with a soundtrack from a legend.
Cowboy hat on head, buckling up his pants over a pronounced beer gut, Bad Blake, a well-known-but-aging country musician arrives at his latest gig: a bowling alley. It is an embarrassing moment for the gruff artist, but the eager (if elderly) audience and young backup band seem unaware of just how demeaning it is.
Crazy Heart, based on a novel inspired by the life of Hank Thompson and directed by Scott Cooper, won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for his sly portrayal of Blake, a semi-famous alcoholic road warrior with a chip on his shoulder from a sunnier life unlived.
Enter Jean, a young journalist and single mother, played by the preternaturally captivating Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jean makes Bad realize just where his life had been headed. “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look. I never noticed what a dump it was until you came in here,” he tells her during their first encounter in his motel room. Suddenly, it’s clear: Bad has many regrets, he’s just never been able to look them in the eye.
What sets the Oscar-winning film apart from other music movies is its subtle but just-right moments. Bad climbing out of a car with a water jug full of urine; falling asleep while driving hours from one gig to the next; strumming his Gibson J-45, casually pulling the threads of what will eventually come together as a full song. He asks Jean if she knows the tune as he plays it; she pauses to listen. “I can’t remember who did it,” she says. “That's the way it is with good ones, you're sure you've heard them before.” It’s not overly dramatic, Bridges delivers the line in Bad’s typical mumble but with a hint of a glimmer in his eye — he knows he’s hit on something good.
It’s these scenes, plus the extraordinary benefit of music by legend T Bone Burnett (Walk the Line, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Stephen Bruton that turn the film from your basic down-and-out redemption story into something special. Bridges and Colin Farrell (who plays Bad’s now-famous former mentee) even sing and play their instruments. You can practically smell the beer, and feel the sticky floors of each bar he walks into.
Nothing about Crazy Heart is in your face, which may be why it’s drifted out of conversation since its buzzy 2009 debut. But the quiet and compelling performances by Bridges, Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall, the beloved soundtrack, and its essential honesty make it memorable: You’ll be humming its tune for days after watching.