For a film with so much buzz behind it — and now a handful of Oscar nominations — Crazy Heart has a pretty well-known story line. That story is about the hard-living country singer Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, who’s spent his life on the road. He’s drank too much, he’s run through women, and now he’s broken down.
You can cover that and then some in just one George Jones tune. But, if the feeling that goes into this soundtrack is any indication of the film’s depth — at the time of this writing, I haven’t seen the film — then there’s a lot more to it than simple country music stereotypes. In fact, this soundtrack manages to do two pretty difficult things at once. It captures a mood, a feeling that these songs push the film’s story along, through celebration, frustration, and loss, but it’s also a love letter to music. Not just country, but blues and folk are in there too. It’s a love letter to American music.
And if you’re going to take on that task, you might as well put it in the hands of T Bone Burnett. The long-brilliant songwriter got together with guitarist Stephen Bruton to produce the soundtrack, and write most of the songs Blake sings in the film. In some ways, they’re simple songs, resting on well-known imagery and a worn country feel. “All my life I’ve been a rolling stone,” Bridges sings on “Hold On You”. And all these songs — from the honky tonk stomp of “Somebody Else” to the gruff sawdust shuffle of “Brand New Angel” — are soaked in regret, in the curse of getting the song right but the life wrong.
These songs could easily slip into bland caricature quickly, if not for the perfect execution on all fronts. Burnett and Bruton aren’t afraid of the country music dictionary they employ here, because they know it, and they use it with control. As the songs wander, searching for resolution, there’s never a hint of self-pity. If anything, there’s an unsettling celebration here. The way Bridges belts out “funny how falling feels like flying” makes you think he’s grinning wide while he plummets to the floor. These songs mine his troubles without letting him off the hook.
Bridges himself is an outstanding front man. Backed by a sturdy country band, Bridges voice is rasped with worry, but thickened with an unflinching bravado. He doesn’t sound, not at one moment here, like he’s acting like a country singer. For half a dozen songs, Jeff Bridges is a country singer, and a damn fine one with quite a bit of range. As sweetly as he belts on “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, his masterstroke comes in the hushed rumble in his voice on “Brand New Angel”. This moment, late in the soundtrack, is Blake broken down, and Bridges strips his voice of its muscle and leaves nothing but bare hurt to carry load. And it does with ease.
While Bridges absolutely steals the show, the other actors singing here fare pretty well, too. Colin Farrell is unrecognizable in the two songs he sings, taking on a convincing — if a tad overdone — twang and matching up to Bridges’ force when the two duet. And while he only gets 50 seconds of singing on “Live Forever”, Robert Duvall’s voice is as heartbreaking as they come. In less than a minute, Duvall makes you wonder why he didn’t become a singer himself.
While this is Burnett and Bridges’ show, you can’t overlook Ryan Bingham’s work. On the heels of Roadhouse Sun, his excellent 2009 album, Bingham knocks Burnett’s “I Don’t Know” out of the park and, in the soundtrack’s last song, steals the show with “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)”. He plays an important part here, carrying traditional country tropes confidently into the here and now. He not only holds up well against Burnett, he also matches the weary age in Bridges voice with his own rasp. “This ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he insists, pushing for one more gamble, one more chance to turn it around, even as he sounds exhausted.
These songs could easily carry the soundtrack, but their mixed in with some classic tracks, offering a heavy nod to the music that made this film possible. There’s classic stuff from country legends like Buck Owens and the Louvin Brothers, but Lightnin’ Hopkins “Once a Gambler” is a brilliant inclusion, shifting away from straight country while diving deeper into that lonesome feeling. Though, if there’s one complaint in all of this, it’s that the love letter side of this soundtrack is only to a certain kind of American music. That is to say, music by men. Sam Phillips is the only woman to appear on here, and her inclusion feels a little token. Sure, this albums rests a little more on the outlaw side of things, which is a male-driven sound, but isn’t there room in here some women? For the likes of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn to hold their own like they always could? Maybe that’s beside the point, maybe this isn’t a woman’s story, but there’s a small feeling of something being left out.
That aside, this soundtrack is a remarkable accomplishment — for Burnett, as further evidence of his striking abilities as a songwriter; for Bingham, as the fiery new head honcho in Americana today; and for Bridges, who proves that he’s not the Dude — he’s a country singer. This is a set of songs that can live firmly on their own, outside of the film, but something tells me they add something special to that, too.