Crazy Heart is one of those films that relies on one’s ability to add the back story. For Crazy Heart this is all the broken lives and self-destruction that has marked country music greats like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Collins (Merle Haggard’s Leonard) and Lefty Frizzell, all who problems with drugs and most died early, their careers long since over. The back story fills every moment of Crazy Heart as Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) stumbles along in irrelevance, going from small city to city, playing in small bars or even bowling alleys, a bottle of whiskey always at hand, always asking his manager for a better gig, but unwilling to understand he’s an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one who has “never missed a gig.” His journey through the small clubs is a good picture of what happens to musicians when the market has long since left them behind. The fans are still there (and country fans are very dedicated) but you make little money and it can hardly seem worth driving 500 miles or more between gigs.
Eventually, Bad Blake meets a younger woman begins a somewhat improbable romance. What could make a broken down country singer 20 years your elder seems so interesting is a little hard to understand. Nonetheless, Blake sees in the woman and her 4 year-old son a past he lost, a past he destroyed with his career. In the relationship he wants as much to recapture the past as start something new. When he breaks his leg he has the chance to move in with them for a while and his better side comes out and he seems like a relatively responsible man.
Once his leg heals he heads back to his home in Texas, which is 800 miles from his girl friend. In Texas he returns to his ways and although he is trying to write new songs he can only drink. His girlfriend visits and it is going well until he loses the boy in a mall and she blames it on his drunkenness and leaves. It sends him into a tail spin of drinking. Yet unlike so many stories of this kind, he actually get sober. It was a refreshing change. How many times does addiction lead to some sort of destruction? This is where the movie leaves the back story. But Crazy Heart isn’t a recovery story, either and the sobriety story is almost nothing. As the movie ends, it is clear he has been sober for sometime and has gotten his career back together and is opening for a major star.
Crazy Heart is a movie that loves its subject: the country musician. It is filled with good live performances by Jeff Bridges and Collin Farrell and celebrates the music as much as the story. You are meant to want him to succeed, and by extension have his music continue. At times, though, it makes the story seem a little bereft of content. On the one had, you know what made him a good singer, on the other you only see the bullet points of his troubles. At the end of the movie, you may be left with the sensation that it was entertaining, but it seemed so easy. That said, Bridges is excellent as a likable looser who you want to win, but whose bad habits keep him from getting close to what he wants. And the film doesn’t dwell in the deep anguish of addiction and loss, so even its darkest moments it isn’t overwhelming. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it makes the film seem as if it never really hit its stride. Ultimately, Crazy Heart is a heart-felt mix of country, addiction, and Americana that is happiest when the music is playing.