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 Wilson 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.
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.