Creating Bad Blake And The Authentic Sounds of Crazy Heart

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jeffbridges

All photos by Dustin Cohen

Like the character he plays so convincingly in Crazy Heart—Bad Blake, an aging Texas troubadour grown weary of his hard-drinkin’, honky-tonkin’, country-music career—Jeff Bridges has been around music all of his life.

But unlike Blake, he has loved every minute of it so far. And that actually has helped him approach his Crazy Heart character, and the music he sings, with such enthusiasm and empathy. That’s one reason he is a favorite for an Academy Award for Best Actor (he took home both the Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild awards for leading male role) as this story goes to press.

Another reason Bridges’ portrayal is so memorable is because he has great songs to sing. Many were written especially for the film by T Bone Burnett alongside the late Stephen Bruton, rising alt-country star Ryan Bingham and others. Songs like “Somebody Else,” “I Don’t Know” and “Fallin’ & Flyin’” sound like the hit records that the film tells us Bad Blake once had. And “The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart),” the quietly elegiac ballad Bingham wrote for the film, is up for an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

“One of my earliest memories as a kid is having Meredith Willson and his wife ‘Rini’ come over to our house, because he wanted my father to be in Music Man,” Bridges recalls, during a phone conversation. Bridges’ dad, the actor Lloyd Bridges, was the star of the Sea Hunt TV series, but also a singer who had parts on Broadway. “This was before Robert Preston got the part. Meredith was really championing my father. I can remember Meredith singing that song, ‘Trouble, I got trouble right here in River City,’ to me and getting down, looking at me on his knees. It was pretty wild.”

Bridges, now 60, started acting as a teen in his father’s 1962-63 The Lloyd Bridges Show, and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his first major role, in 1971’s The Last Picture Show. More than 50 films have followed, but Bridges has also maintained his keen interest in music along with acting.

He’s especially proud, for instance, of his role as a lounge-jazz pianist in 1989’s  Fabulous Baker Boys, with music provided by Dave Grusin. And he co-owns a record label, Ramp Records, that released his folk-rock-soul album, Be Here Soon,in 2000. And occasionally, Bridges will make music with friend and Ramp partner Chris Pelonis.

But still, neither Bridges’ life (he’s been happily married for 33 years) nor music is outwardly similar to the Bad Blake character, a 57-year-old Texan steeped in old-school traditionalism with a twist of rock and 1970s-era outlaw country. The film’s first-time director Scott Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay from Thomas Cobb’s novel, told Bridges to think of Blake as the fifth Highwayman. For those of you slow on the draw, that’s the supergroup formed by outlaw-country veterans Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson—serious company for Bad Blake to keep.

At the film’s start, Blake is reduced to driving his beat-up Suburban from one desolate Southwest gig to another, feeling nearly faded as his jeans. Sometimes, he plays in dumps like a bowling-alley lounge—sometimes, he gets so drunk he throws up in dumps like a bowling-alley lounge! A protégée once in his band, played by Colin Farrell, is now a big-time star and wants Blake to write songs for him, but the hard life has produced writer’s block. And he’s become a weary loser—a paunchy, unkempt chain-smoker, constantly short of breath. He’s a loner living on the road, but offered a possible shot at redemption by a sensitive single mom/journalist, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), who adores his creative strengths, but hates his personal weaknesses.

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Burnett, who crafted and shaped the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou?and Walk the Line, says there’s more of Bad Blake than one might suspect in Bridges—and in himself, too. “Maybe all actors and musicians have that in them,” he says, talking by phone from his studio in L.A. “I feel my life has been as a loner on the road; I do feel that very much. And I’d say it’s true for Jeffrey Bridges, too. He talks about how he spent 11 of the last 16 months away from home. We all have that in common. To say ‘loner on the road’ is probably a pretty good way of putting it.”

Crazy Heart’s origin starts when Cooper, a 39-year-old actor, decided he wanted to direct. He had encouragement from a close friend, Robert Duvall, with whom he had appeared in the 2003 film Gods and Generals. Cooper’s love was country music—he grew up in Virginia with parents so devoted to the genre that they carried the young Cooper to concerts. “I literally cut my teeth listening to Ralph Stanley, Earl Monroe and Doc Watson,” he says, in a separate phone interview. “My father and mother would take me from bluegrass festival to bluegrass festival and we’d camp all weekend long. And then I segued to my father’s vinyl collection—Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Cash, Waylon [Jennings] and Merle [Haggard].”

Cooper’s first choice was to make a biopic on Merle Haggard. “In my estimation, Merle may be the greatest country singer of all time—even more than Hank Williams, although I love Hank. Merle writes so eloquently about his life experiences that he’s the poet laureate of country music. And his life is very cinematic and I felt like I could tell that story.”

Unfortunately, it was tough for Cooper to acquire rights to make a film of Haggard’s life. An acquaintance suggested he read the obscure, out-of-print 1989 novel Crazy Heart; Cooper did and thought it would be a good film. Novelist Thomas Cobb had modeled it on the life of Hank Thompson, a Texas-born Western swing musician who kept performing and recording virtually all his life—even after his stardom faded—until dying in 2007 at age 82.

But Cooper wasn’t so interested in making a film modeled on Thompson. “I thought I could fictionalize Merle’s life, Kristofferson’s, Billy Joe’s and Townes’ and put it into this one character who would be the fifth Highwayman. And I wrote it for Jeff Bridges; I tailored it for him.”

Cooper had heard Bridges’ album and liked his music as well as his acting. “He’s a terrific picker and a very good singer, and he physically embodied Kris and Waylon in a way, and next to Robert Duvall, he’s probably America’s greatest screen actor. If you look at Jeff’s body of work, he recedes into the roles. We don’t know much about Jeff’s private life; therefore, you believe what you see on the screen.”

Bridges, upon reading the script, was wary. He liked the words on the page, but the necessary songs weren’t written yet. So he turned it down. “Fabulous Baker Boysset the bar pretty high for me as far as doing a movie about a musician’s life,” Bridges says. “And on that film, we had the great Dave Grusin playing the music, and we had all these wonderful pop and jazz standards. So when I took on another music movie, I wanted it as good as that one, which is pretty hard to beat, actually.”

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But Cooper, knowing the music would be the keystone of the film, had also given a script to Burnett. He read it and was impressed in how the storyline slowly built to Blake writing an important late-career song. “I thought here’s a chance to actually be part of the storytelling, the drama, rather than just dealing with isolated moments, the way songs are often dropped into movies,” Burnett, 61, says. “Very seldom are they woven this seamlessly into the fabric of the story. That presented a lot of exciting possibilities.”

And then Burnett and Bridges ran into each other. “T Bone asked me if I was interested in this movie, and I said, ‘Why, are you interested?’ He said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’ I said, ‘Let’s go, man.’”

Burnett also began thinking of involving Stephen Bruton, a lifelong friend, in the film’s music selection and production. Bruton, who died of cancer last May at age 60, was a longtime guitarist for Kristofferson as well as a songwriter who had released five solo albums. Crazy Heart is dedicated to him.

Burnett and Bruton grew up together in Fort Worth, where Bruton’s father owned a record store. Bruton, in fact, was the first person to play Burnett “O Death”—the haunting, eerie Appalachian ballad that was such a standout musical moment in O Brother. “We explored the last century of music at that store,” Burnett says. “It was an incredible library and reflected the taste and aesthetic of the family. Sumter Bruton was a man of impeccable taste and so was Stephen. When we were kids, he played ‘O Death’ for me on the banjo—he had heard the Dock Boggs version. He was into that very early on—Dock Boggs and the Blue Sky Boys, The Carter Family, the whole world of wild country music going on in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Bruton was not meant to be a prototype for Blake per se, although he had done his share of hard living on the road. “I do think Steven was our inside man,” Burnett says. “He’d been in the band, on the stage, a fly on the wall, and on the bus for a long time and had a million great stories. And he was one of the most rapier wits and had a great way of looking at all this stuff.” That wit is on display in one of Crazy Heart’s key songs—the rockin’ “Fallin’ & Flyin’”—which had been written by Bruton and Gary Nicholson earlier and has the lyrical twist, “Sometimes fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while.” In the film, it works as a long-ago Bad Blake hit that is still a favorite among his aging fans.

Bridges knew Burnett and Bruton from time spent on a movie set—Michael Cimino’s 1980 revisionist Western Heaven’s Gate, an aspiring epic considered such a financial and critical disaster that a best-selling book was written about its failure.Its story line revolves around a Wyoming range war in which cattlemen unite to fight European immigrants.

The immigrants’ music is extremely important to the film, and Cimino had hired Burnett and David Mansfield, both from the Alpha Band, to play in the Heaven’s Gate band. (Mansfield got credit for the score, based on Eastern European folk music, and has gone on to a career in film music.) Also acting in the film was Kristofferson, who brought along such musician friends as Bruton, Ronnie Hawkins and Norton Buffalo. They, too, wound up in the film—Bruton in the band with Burnett, Mansfield and others.

It was a long shoot in a remote Western location. “For my money, that’s where the beginning of Crazy Heart came from,” Bridges says. “Kris brought all his musician friends, all these wonderful guys, and we would jam every night after work making music.”

Crazy Heart also had Duvall’s increasing support going in. His company, Butcher’s Run, is one of its producers and he took a small role as Bad Blake’s friend—even getting to sing an a cappella version of Shaver’s “Live Forever.” That gave Crazy Heart a living link to an important movie about a middle-aged country singer, Tender Mercies, which was written by Horton Foote, a Texan, and won Duvall a Best Actor Oscar.

But before shooting could begin, Burnett and Bruton had to write and/or find songs that Bridges could convincingly sell (and sing) as Bad Blake creations. In this regard, Crazy Heart is far different an undertaking than the biopics Walk the Line and Ray,where the songs, as well as the characters’ lives, are a known quantity to the audience going on. That challenge was fine with Bridges. “Biopics are always tough, because they often get into things we’re all familiar with, and I don’t find that interesting,” he says.

To make Bridges convincing as a country singer, Burnett had to find role models appropriate for his voice. “We were looking for deep chest voices and good songwriters that pierced the zeitgeist,” Burnett says. “Leonard Cohen was one of the premier ones, as was Don Williams. He had a lot of country hits, and is a really good singer. He was in a Texas group called the Pozo-Seco Singers. And he recorded a hit version of the Townes song ‘If I Needed You’ that we use in movie.”

Burnett also wrote a timeline for Blake—who his musical influences would be, who else would have had hits the same time as him, what other music besides country he might have listened to in his free time. Some of that can be seen in the film, itself such as when Blake listens to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Once a Gambler” in his Suburban.

There’s a key scene where Blake, talking to Gyllenhaal’s character Jean about his influences, mentions country-music figures like Lulu Belle and Scotty, Emmett Miller and Hank Williams—and she impresses him by bringing up Lefty Frizzell. “The main thing that chart served was to let me know that this guy’s tastes were quite eclectic, not so trapped in just one sort of music,” Bridges says. “I remember mentioning to T Bone, ‘You think Bad would have listened to Captain Beefheart, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ In that scene, I wanted to put Beefheart in there just to show Bad had broad tastes, but it didn’t make the cut.”

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Essentially, Burnett, Bruton, Bridges, Cooper and various others set up a “writer’s table” to consult on songs. Bridges, an admirer of the singer/songwriter Greg Brown, provided his “Brand New Angel” as a song that Blake could sing. And Bridges’ grade-school friend, Nashville songwriter John Goodwin, was the primary contributor (with Bruton, Burnett and Bob Neuwirth pitching in) of the first song Blake is heard to sing in the movie, an ominously moody and suitably foreshadowing “Hold On You.”

However, the first song Blake is seen singing, during a performance at that bowling-alley lounge, is a Burnett-Bruton composition, “Somebody Else” (“I used to be somebody/Now I’m somebody else”). It became the first words we see Bad sing in the movie,” Burnett says. “It becomes his Greek chorus, even though he’s singing it himself. It’s the first thing we hear him say about himself.”

The crucial song for Crazy Heart is the one Blake struggles to write as he decides to redeem himself in Jean’s eyes by fighting his alcoholism, loneliness and writer’s block. It is introspective, even melancholy, and far different than some of the rowdy, swingin’ tunes of his past.

That song, “The Weary Kind,” was provided by a relative newcomer, 28-year-old Bingham. He had the right background for country music, even if he wasn’t a big name. He grew up in small towns in New Mexico and West Texas, had been active in rodeo bull-riding, and has made alt-country albums displaying a voice as ruggedly scorched and dusty as the spare, resonant landscapes he knew as home—2006’s Dead Horses on Lone Star Music, 2007’s Mescalito and 2009’s Roadhouse Sun on Lost Highway.

Early on, Bingham and drummer Jay Bellerose (from his band Dead Horses) had started coming to Los Angeles for small club gigs, and at one in Canter’s Deli he met a talent agent, Jack Wigam of Creative Artists Agency. They became friends and when Cooper was looking for songwriters to contribute to Crazy Heart, Wigam gave Cooper some of his music.

“Scott called him up and said he wanted to meet me for lunch,” Bingham recalls, during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “We talked about music and Scott, who had given me the script, said, ‘If you’re inspired to write anything, let me know.’ I went on the road right after that, read the script and started working on the song. I got home and made a rough demo and sent it to Scott, but I didn’t hear for two or three weeks.

“Then, one day, I was home and Scott called me up and he said he was over at T Bone’s house working on some songs and wanted to know if I’d come over and meet everybody,” he continues. “I grabbed a copy of ‘The Weary Kind’ to take with me and went to T Bone’s house. The first thing he did when I walked in the door was say, ‘What have you got in your hand? Let me see that record.’ We all went in the living room, played the stereo loud as we could play it and they all said, ‘Man, that’s the song we want to use.’”

Burnett, who shares a writing credit, explains why “The Weary Kind” works so well. “It gives Bad a new lease on life,” he says. “His creativity having been frozen, this is the thaw, this is him returning to his creative process. And it was a good song for him to be laying around on the bed singing, for him to be thinking about doing, and it had a great vibe. And it had a killer title. I was trying to get Scott to call the movie The Weary Kind, but that didn’t work.”

(Eventually, Cooper also cast Bingham and his band as the young pick-up musicians who play behind Blake at the bowling alley—Bingham even gets to step in and sing a bit of a Bruton-Burnett composition, “I Don’t Know.” And Bingham gets to sing “Weary Kind” on the film’s soundtrack.)

By the time the scenes were ready to be shot, Bridges was well-prepared to sing the songs. He had rehearsed the material in a Los Angeles hall with a band and was comfortable with it. “When we actually shot the movie, T Bone and Stephen made sure all the guys in the band shooting the film were world-class musicians,” Bridges says. “So it would be fun on the day of shooting to be playing for real with those guys. Some vocals were pre-recorded and I sang back to the pre-recorded tracks, but we also did some where I did the singing live. They were scattered through, so Scott had a choice and could mix and match.”

During the actual shooting, Burnett was often away from the set—he was involved in Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ tour in support of their Burnett-produced Raising Sand album. But Bruton was there, helping Bridges with little things—a scene where Blake dumps a urine-filled water bottle at the end of his journey was inspired by his experiences.

“He was with me every step of the way, every day at work, so I could ask him, ‘How would you carry the guitar?’”  Bridges says. “And I had never really played with a band before. He was also there for Scott, really encouraged him to make it more authentic. He’s all over the movie—the whole movie is dedicated to him. It’s not just because he died, but because he’s the heart and soul of it, really. He was battling cancer for years, but when we were shooting the movie, he was in a particularly good stretch, feeling healthy and had a lot of energy. He was able to see the movie and work on fine-tuning the music and sound with T Bone. Then, he took a turn for the worse and left us.”

For his part, Bridges hopes the Crazy Heart experience will encourage him to get out and make more country-oriented music. And Bingham hopes to get into a studio this spring to record his next album with Burnett producing. But as for Cooper, he may move on from country.

“If I make another musical film, it will probably be on the life of Miles Davis or Chet Baker,” he says.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

 

 

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