Crazy Heart, Tender Mercies and country music on film
Crazy Heart is a tale of alcoholism, love, redemption and country music. It has a healthy lineage writes Paul Dale
It’s good to see Jeff Bridges in a role he can get his teeth into in Crazy Heart, after watching him count the minutes (and the money) in crap like Iron Man, How to Win Friends and Alienate People and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Bridges’ portrayal of Bad Blake – an ageing, down-on-his-luck singer/songwriter, who was once a star of country music, is an exceptional and monstrous creation. Like the outlaw titans that Bad is all too clearly based on – Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard – Bad gambles his considerable talents against Bacchus, while a new breed of more business minded country star (personified in the movie by Colin Farrell playing a variant on Clint Black and Garth Brooks) fills stadiums and cleans up.
Crazy Heart is a familiar tale of last chances and the freedom of the road as interpreted in pints of bourbon and endless Marlboro reds, it’s one given a real sense of perspective by the presence of Robert Duvall in a small supporting role and on the producer credits. Duvall has form with this kind of thing; in fact he made almost the same movie back in 1983. It was called Tender Mercies in which Duvall, then at the top of his form, took the lead role of a recovering alcoholic country singer hiding from his past in the arms of Tess Harper’s Texas widow.
Directed by Bruce Beresford a few years before started Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies is a fantastic film, but to be fair Hollywood has been good to country and western music. Whether this is because the untalented actors, hairdressers, agents and assorted tea boys (very few women) who eventually find themselves in charge of the major studios just love their honky tonk, or that they realise ‘them rednecks are the hidden demographic we just ain’t tapping into’ is unclear, but just look at the evidence. We got a good ole, down home poverty tale with freckly young Sissy Spacek stepping out as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter and isn’t that adulterous Patsy Cline being played like a saint by the brilliant Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams? And then there’s the first lady and gentleman of country – June Carter and Johnny Cash being played by Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line.
When it come to putting country music up on the screen – those real life stories just get in the way, it’s much better to have about 300 folk milling about pretending they know something about country music. It worked for Robert Altman when he made Nashville, an insider’s view of a generic music scene which has never been equalled. And then there’s a vicious little masterpiece from 1973 called Payday starring Rip Torn as Maury Dann, a mediocre but popular country-western artist who treats all around him like scum. Within a year of making Payday, mad Torn was trying to murder Norman Mailer in front of his family in the Hamptons. But that’s another story.
Crazy Heart is on general release from Fri 19 Feb.