Fox // 2009 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 3rd, 2010
The harder the life, the sweeter the song.
One of the few things rock 'n' roll failed to steal from country music (or its other parent, the blues) was the trick of growing old gracefully. Take Willie Nelson. Despite all his weed-infected antics in the twenty-first century, there's a certain dignity to his person that not even an album of reggae covers could tarnish. Contrast that with the somewhat silly spectacle of Mick Jagger, fronting what amounts to the longest-running act in rock, still singing about getting some "Brown Sugar." Don't get me wrong, the Rolling Stones still rock, but compared to where they were forty years ago, there's no contest when compared to country's elder statesmen, many of whom, like Johnny Cash, had their best moments after fifth.
Country can age more gracefully for a couple of reason. One is that the genre has always had a more open field for thematic material. Sure there are tales of love and hard drinking, but God and family and growing old have always been part of the country repertoire. The other big reason is that Nashville is still run like the old Brill Building pop empires of the early part of the twentieth century. While rockers are out grinding through tour after tour trying to hock merchandise, there are still a significant number of musicians working in Country music who take a publishing deal writing songs for younger and prettier performers. This kind of semi-regular paycheck can make music a lifelong career instead of something that most people burn out of in their thirties.
All of this is to say thank goodness country music is the way it is, because rock 'n 'roll would never have produced a film like Crazy Heart. Sure, rock might give us a character as worn and weathered as "Bad" Blake, but it's much harder to take a 57-year-old rocker seriously -- and we're meant to take Crazy Heart seriously. As a low-key story of age and redemption, it succeeds in every possible way, including its Blu-ray presentation.
The years have not been kind to "Bad" Blake (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski). His former sideman Tommy (Colin Farrell) has cashed in on his catalogue, leaving Bad to split his time between touring tiny bandstands or playing a stint at a local bar in Houston. He's got no money, he drinks too much, he hasn't written a song in years, and his cash-cow Tommy won't do a duet record to bolster his ailing finances. All that falls by the wayside when he meets a reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary). The pair fall for each other. Despite the fact that Jean has a young son she doesn't want exposed to Bad's hard-drinking lifestyle, the pair seems headed for a golden sunset -- that is, if Bad can hold it together.
On the surface, it sounds like we've seen Crazy Heart before. It appears to be another story of an aging musician given one final chance to make good after a life of too much whiskey and too little money. Crazy Heart is surprising, because instead of taking this melodramatic premise and milking it for false pathos, the film sticks to the actual human drama. First, there's no real "final chance" in Crazy Heart. There's no big moment the film builds to, because that's not how real life is. Instead, there are a number of choices presented to Bad, and, over the course of the film, they open doors that slowly allow him to walk to towards a brighter future. Second, the film doesn't spend too much time reveling in stereotypical depictions of life on the road. Sure, there's lots of drinking, puking, and falling down, but the film excels at presenting the more mundane indignities of the road -- pickup bands, embarrassing fans, and constant reminders of what might have been. These human elements are what elevate Crazy Heart above 99 percent of films based on a musician's life.
The human element in the story might have been enough to ensure Crazy Heart's greatness, but director Scott Cooper did everyone a favor and assembled a fantastic cast to bring this story to the screen. The slight paunch and scruffy hair of Jeff Bridges might call to mind his iconic turn as The Dude, but just as Sweeney Todd was the dark twin of Captain Jack Sparrow, Bad Blake is the introverted other of the Lebowski live-and-let-live philosophy. Everything from his weary walk to his slightly mumbly delivery paints a history for Bad that we never know but can see written on Bridges' every action. They could have stopped there; once you have Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake you can cast cardboard cutouts for the other roles and have a great film. Cooper and Co. didn't stop there. To play his romantic interest, they got Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has to be almost as damaged and guarded as Bad, all while looking much prettier. Colin Farrell is also note-perfect as Bad's former sideman Tommy Sweet, and producer Robert Duvall turns a tiny role as a bartender into one of the film's emotional anchors.
Crazy Heart is a low-key film, and it gets a similarly low-key hi-def presentation. The film's visual look is uncluttered and subdued, and that's perfectly embodied in the transfer, which keeps detail high and grain appropriate. The deep blacks during some of the interiors and night scenes are especially fine. The DTS-HD audio track is similarly superb. The music has a startling clarity and a surprisingly heavy low-end. My only complaint is that the volume disparity between the music and quieter scenes necessitated some manipulation of the volume button.
The extras include almost 30 minutes of deleted and alternate material, much of which is interesting in light of the story as it plays out in the film. The extra scene between Bad and Tommy from the film's end was especially worthwhile. The next extra is a 3-minute talking-head piece featuring interviews with Bridges, Gyllenhaal, and Duvall about how they came to work on Crazy Heart. The disc rounds out with the film's trailer.
Crazy Heart is a film that takes its time. Those looking for a fast-paced story of musical redemption should look elsewhere.
It's also a crying shame that Crazy Heart hasn't received the royal treatment on Blu-ray. A commentary, some more background on T. Bone Burnett's contribution to the film, and more info from the actors would take this disc to must-own level easily.
Crazy Heart is the kind of film that will only grow with time, providing a human portrait of a flawed artist. Some of the trappings may be familiar, but the film's attention to the small details of a musical life put it a cut above the competition. Although the Blu-ray release is nothing to write home about in the extras department, the excellent audiovisual presentation makes this an otherwise easy recommendation.
Crazy Heart may be a story of the weary kind, but I doubt anyone's going to grow tired of this film anytime soon. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Cinema Verdict Review