Bruton's Swan Song

Call it “Hollywood Alcoholism,” meaning it’s not Requiem for a Dream, that chilling and incredibly visceral film depiction of addiction, but the more common cut and dried variety—he came, he drank, he fucked up, he had an epiphany and of course, he cleaned up after one neat and tidy trip to the Zen rehab clinic. Having seen Townes Van Zandt and more than a few other musical substance abusers when they were riding high (which is really riding low, if you know what I mean), things just ain’t this a way. Hollywood’s way is to show addiction without any of the struggle. Oh sure, he threw up, sort of, once or twice but hell, I remember seeing Townes fall off a stage that was four inches high, and then he couldn’t get up. When I pitched in to help, the man clearly had not showered in quite some time. He’d been bingeing and playing one nighters, which is where Crazy Heart starts out.

Hollywood depends on suspending that old disbelief and dammit, sometimes you know too much about a subject to ever see it made into a movie; or be “Hollywoodized” as it were. I’m probably the wrong audience for a film like Crazy Heart>. But then given my musical tastes, which have always included a decided weakness for Texas Troubadours, it would seem that I’m also exactly the right audience for this film about Bad Blake, the broke and broke down country rock singer/songwriter who works small bars in the Texas/New Mexico/Arizona Chitlin’ Circuit of country music and finds salvation thanks to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who incredibly in this film, does not find a way to get naked. The story is lightweight and there are serious pacing problems; too many slow spots. And lots of loose ends that could have added many layers, but did not. Robert Duvall appears ever so briefly. And then there’s Colin Ferrell’s character of Tommy Sweet, who was once Blake’s guitar player but is now a mainstream country star. There could have been sparks in that relationship, anger, forgiveness, a good sharp comment on selling out and the current state of country music but alas, Ferrell loves Blake, pays him respect, Blake gruffly accepts and poof! No complexities. They do manage to harmonize convincingly in one scene. I didn’t think they had it in `em.

And then let’s not even talk about idiocies like Jeff Bridges talking in a working phone booth (in the age of cellphones?), that just happened to be sitting alongside a rural road, somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico. I lived in New Mexico. There are no phone booths out in the country. I laughed at that part, thinking it had to be a joke. It wasn’t. I know people in New Jersey and South Carolina and everywhere east of Arkansas don’t know what New Mexico looks like but Dammit! That is askin’ a lot.

Despite all this kvetching from a professional nitpicker, it’s still a film about music, about a drunken, rocked up country singer/songwriter who is fairly real, so what’s not to like really. And again, I may be too close to the subject to enjoy this decidedly unmessy retelling of a composite of biographies that are decidedly messy. As Rodney Crowell said in a memorable song, “Life is Messy” but this film really isn’t. Or it isn’t messy enough. Unless your idea of messy is Bridges sucking on cigarettes like his life depends on it in every scene. The soundtrack is good, with tracks by Buck Owens, Charlie and Ira Louvin and Lightnin’ Hopkins among others. The standout performance comes from Bridges who channels a number of different real life celebrities at once. If you know who he’s imitating, it’s both fun and scary to watch. While he nods towards David Allan Coe, and Townes, the primary inspirations for Bad Blake are Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. It’s Shaver’s real life, Jennings look and Kristofferson’s growl. Again, lots to like.

The film’s deepest connection to the music it celebrates is its dedication to the memory of Stephen Bruton, a singer/songwriter and guitar player who was a fixture on the Austin scene for many years who tragically passed way this past May from throat cancer at age 60. Bruton, who produced the film’s music, even writing several of the songs Blake sings in the film, completed work on the project two weeks before he died. His childhood friend and co-producer, T Bone Burnett, is one of the producers of the film. Bruton died at Burnett’s house. Some of the moments when a genuine sepia mood seeps into the film, such as when Blake tries to call an adult son he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler and gets shut down, seem to me to resound with some of the sadness that Bruton’s illness and death must have cast over the entire project. But then that’s just the old nit picking romantic in me talking.

littlefire's picture

Thank you, Robert, for reminding people of the musical and personal goodness that was and always will be Stephen Bruton. I eagerly look forward to seeing the movie. In the meantime, I'll listen to his splendid Austin-enriched CDs, particularly the first two, What It Is (an R2D4) and Right on Time.

John Atkinson's picture

What "littlefire" said, Robert.