Reviews

Crazy Heart

An understanding of the music business -- in addition to genuinely lovely performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal -- makes Crazy Heart something special.


Crazy Heart

Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-16 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-04-17 (General release)
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Trailer

"It's so unfair," laments Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), "Some people give 10 years of their life to do something like that and it just pours out of you." Looking at her new-maybe and currently laid-up boyfriend, the country songwriter and singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), she bursts into tears. He's stunned, as he's only been doing what he's always done, composing a tune on his guitar while flat on his back, drunk and busted up. She sobs that just watching this creation is remarkable for her, even though she knows that in a few days he'll be back on the road and won't remember her or the song, precisely because for him, it's nothing special.

In this brief exchange, Crazy Heart complicates its focus, which otherwise has seemed a little simple. So far, Scott Cooper's movie, based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, has been following the unlikely and sometimes difficult romance between Bad and Jean. He's an old-school country singer ("influenced by the blues," he says) and she's an aspiring music journalist. When he rolls through Santa Fe, where she lives with her four-year-old, Buddy (Jack Nation), Bad grants her a rare interview. They flirt, he's moved, and she appreciates his morning-after attentions to Buddy, when he invites himself over to her house to fix biscuits for breakfast.

Though Jean knows better, she's drawn to Bad, who's vaguely charming and seemingly vulnerable even when he's plainly manipulative and self-interested. Like many women before her (he's been married four times), she's also drawn to his genius -- the ease with which he makes art, which she notes in the scene described above, as well as the art he makes (songs written by T-Bone Burnett, one of the film's producers, with Stephen Bruton). And even as she's mystified and infuriated by Bad's carelessness with his gift and good fortune, Jean is also well aware of the cliché he embodies: the celebrity addict, brilliantly charismatic, used to getting what he wants, and constitutionally undependable. As she resists becoming a cliché herself, the film considers the forms and functions of art, particularly art in a commercial world.

This focus is filtered through 57-year-old Bad's coming to self-awareness. The reason he's laid up at Jean's is that he's driven his '78 Suburban off the road. On top of the broken ankle he's suffered -- which puts him on symbolic crutches -- he's confronted with what his doctor calls "your general condition, or your extreme lack of it." The doctor lists the afflictions lurking inside him him, that is, "emphysema, heart failure, cancer, and an extremely good chance of a stroke," and tells him to stop smoking and drinking and eating lousy food. But even as he advises Bad to "lose 25 pounds," you and he know there's no chance any of it will happen. Bad's art is shaped by his good-ol'-boyish recklessness. His primary commitments are to his Fender Tremolux and the next bottle of McClure's. He can’t imagine another way to be.

As he comes to face consequences of this recklessness, Bad sees that his badness -- his success and also the limits on it -- are also shaped by the business he's in. Now that he's long since past his commercial prime, Bad is confronted with the unfairness of that business: the young artist he once mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), is now a superstar and Bad resents it. When Jean includes questions about the much more famous Tommy during her first interview with Bad ("Is Tommy Sweet real country?"), he puts her off, turning instead to his own well-rehearsed charms and predictable interests, that is, he says, "How bad you made this room look. I never knew how bad it looked before you walked into it."

Corny as it may be, she blushes at the line (then reveals her own charms as she explains, "I can't help it, my capillaries are close to my skin"). But even as Jean understands Bad's willful disinterest in Tommy's career, she can't know the depth of their relationship -- the years they spent together on the road, the younger man's ascent and sell-out, Bad's self-destruction. When Bad's manager Jack (Paul Herman) gets him a gig opening for Tommy in front of 12,000 people, he can't refuse. He is, after all, desperate for money, currently playing bowling alleys and back-alley saloons with local backup bands.

When they meet again, Tommy's respectful, acknowledging the debt he owes in the way he hangs his head and tries to alert a slavering fan to that debt ("This is the autograph you need"), but also terminally self-interested. When he and his label offer Bad a songwriting contract ("Here's a way you can make some money if you want to"), the older artist resists but sees the kid is right too. Whatever efforts at redemption he'll make in order to bring the film to its (not completely predictable) end, Bad gets what's at stake in his art as well as his business. And that insight -- in addition to the much-praised and genuinely lovely performances by Bridges and Gyllenhaal -- makes Crazy Heart something special.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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