Creating Bad Blake And The Authentic Sounds of Crazy Heart

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 Boys set 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.

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