Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper’s lo-fi drama, Crazy Heart (IMDB) focuses on down-on-his-luck country singer, Bad Blake, a hard-drinking but talented singer-songwriter who seems meant to recall the outlaw country musicians such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, a connection that is only reinforced through Bridges’ resemblance to  a slightly less scruffy Kris Kristofferson.  He’s the guy who has tons of musical talent, but thanks to bad luck or his own stubbornness, never made it big. Now he’s playing every low-rent bar and bowling alley in cities all over the southwest.  West Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to Houston.  Bad seems to stumble from gig to gig, calling his agent, pleading for a final opportunity at the mainstream success that has always eluded him.  And despite his hard drinking ways, Bad does show up at every gig, in one case stopping in the middle of a song to leave the stage and vomit in a back alley before coming back for the big finish.

Although the romance plot with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean, a journalist who knows her country music (she name drops Lefty Frissell) seems to offer him the clearest shot at redemption, Bad seems even more focused on his relationship with Tommy Sweet, an attractive, young, rising country star (played by Colin Farrell).  Bad expresses frustration that Tommy seems to have neglected his mentor, choosing to focus on what “his label” wants rather than on loyalty to an old friend.  And although the film seemed to be derivative of a number of films, including co-star Robert Duvall’s own film, Tender Mercies, I found this conflict between Tommy and Bad to be worth addressing, in large part because it seems to replay, yet again, one of the central thematic devices of contemporary indie cinema: the conflict between indie and mainstream itself.

I’ve been reading Geoff King’s Indiewood, USA this week, and one of the more compelling observations King makes is that many of Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, play out this opposition thematically, whether through Craig’s puppet shows or through the challenges of screenwriting for studios. Even last year’s acting Oscar-bait, The Wrestler, seems to offer a redemptive depiction of the pure physicality of minor league wrestlers like Randy, as compared to the fakery of commercial wrestling.  I’m not entirely sure that I should be registering this observation as a complaint: questions about the nature of artistic production are of utmost importance in our culture, and in the world of indie, it only makes sense to interrogate the role of capital in shaping those expressions.

So, yes, I do think that Crazy Heart is derivative, and I’ll even acknowledge that Bad Blake is a pretty watered-down version of the outlaw country singers he’s supposed to resemble (as one or more of my Facebook commenters observed).   But I think many of these films are trying to tell us something about the challenges artists face in navigating the indie-mainstream divide today, whether that’s in music or on film.  I don’t know that Crazy Heart offers anything new to that discussion, but I think it is symptomatic of a certain tendency in indie filmmaking.

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