Friday, August 3, 2012

Roots: Country Strong & Crazy Heart

Since country music is about the search for roots, it's not surprising that movies on the subject feature characters involved in a largely futile quest to find them. Kevin Courrier wrote about two of those movies early on in Critics at Large.

Love and Fame: Country Strong

Just about the easiest thing to do is create melodrama out of country music. It's built right into the songs. Breaking hearts, lost families and wounded pride are about as common to the genre as the soft crying twang of a steel guitar. In Country Strong (Sony, 2011), which was just released on DVD earlier this week, writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) tells a typical story of the price of love and fame in the world of country music, but she distills the melodrama of its tabloid fascination. Feste instead develops an openly relaxed approach to the material which brings us closer to the essence of the music and how its stars cope with the cynicism of the industry.     

Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter.
The movie begins as country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is recovering in a rehab clinic from alcohol abuse which led to her falling off stage during a show in Texas and having a miscarriage. While drying out, she is being cared for by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a country singer who wants no part of stardom. But he loves both her and her music, which leads to them carrying on an affair. Her husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw), meanwhile wants her out of rehab so that she can pick up her career. So he books her into a three-show tour which includes an opening act featuring both Beau and a young, aspiring singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour not only unravels Kelly's own demons (including the dissolution of her pained marriage), but also the end of her affair with Beau who becomes romantically drawn to Chiles, the talented ingénue who hasn't yet been corrupted by the industry.

While Country Strong borrows bits and pieces of plotting from Intermezzo, All About Eve and Coal Miner's Daughter, Shana Feste treats the plot more as stitching. She allows the actors room to intuitively play into each others' rhythms the way musicians often do while improvising on a song. Besides having a good strong country voice, Gwyneth Paltrow has been showing some toughness in recent performances (especially her remarkably brittle turn in James Gray's unappreciated Two Lovers). Drawing a little on both the fragile careers of Mindy McCready and Brittany Spears, Paltrow clings to her songs as if they were lifeboats. Knowing that she's losing Beau (and has lost the blinding admiration of her manager husband due to the miscarriage), when she sings "Coming Home," it's clear that home is no longer the refuge it once was. Home doesn't even exist anymore. Paltrow is completely convincing playing an artist whose spirit is in synch with her work even if her life isn't.

Garrett Hedlund as Beau Hutton.
Garrett Hedlund has the amiably relaxed presence - both as an actor and singer - as Kris Kristofferson. He's a remarkably self-effacing performer playing a country artist always in search of the soul of the music. (He even wishes the American national anthem was Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried.") Country singer and actor Tim McGraw, who played Hedlund's abusive father in the film version of Friday Night Lights (2004), gives a beautifully unadorned performance. James Cantor is a man who is not only losing his wife, but also his image of who he thought she was. McGraw doesn't need to sing in Country Strong because his performance plays like a sombre ballad of regret and loss.

Leighton Meester as Chiles.
Leighton Meester, who has some of the ornate beauty of Ronee Blakley combined with the spry spunk of Winona Ryder, provides some unexpected dimensions to Chiles' ambitions. Unlike the young careerist in All About Eve, Chiles has a complete lack of guile. Her innocence is fueled mostly by a need to escape the life she came from into a career that can transform her. Both Beau and Kelly also come to see her not so much as a rival, or a naive talent to be corrupted, but as a woman who could have both a great commercial career and a stable life. If Beau can't live with the fickle fortunes of the business (and Kelly was being destroyed by it), Chiles can emerge possibly unscathed. Part of the charm of Country Strong is that it doesn't suggest that because you want to be a commercial artist, it automatically means that you've lost your street cred.

When Country Strong was released theatrically last January (usually the kiss of death for most movies), it drew a number of hostile reviews. While the plot does nothing new, the music and performances are both engaging and touching. So I was surprised by the hostility of the response. Perhaps because Shana Feste thoughtfully examines an ambivalence in the country music world between a love of your art and the fame that can taint it, it perhaps confused some writers who spent more time slamming the melodramatic tropes of the plot. 

Tim McGraw as James Cantor.
For one thing, the ending, in particular, is a big mistake. Obviously test market screenings demanded something more upbeat than the story demanded. But, fortunately, the original deleted ending (which makes much more dramatic sense to the story) is featured as an extra on the disc.

In dramatic terms, Country Strong is mostly carried along by the casual rhythms of its songs just as Jerry Schatzberg's  Honeysuckle Rose (1980) was with Willie Nelson's tunes. In fact, in Country Strong, along with Willie Nelson, you can feel the abiding spirit of Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Carrie Underwood. At its best, Country Strong not only pays homage to their legacies, it also tries to fulfill them.

- originally published on April 16, 2011 in Critics at Large. 

Living in a Song: Crazy Heart

Besides gospel, there is probably no other musical genre in American culture that is so devoted to the quest for roots, or the deep desire for personal transformation, than country music. So when the boozy, destitute country-and-western singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) inCrazy Heart sings “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else,” he carries in his voice those ghosts on the lost highway that carried singers like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. (Speaking of gospel, Blake may also be carrying the ghost of Thomas A. Dorsey who wrote “Peace in the Valley,” a song about transcendence that drew the interest of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley where, in the song, the singer hopes to “be changed from this creature that I am.”)

Crazy Heart is a movie about people who live in songs, trying to find both the roots of their pain, and the seeds of their own salvation within them. Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, director Scott Cooper doesn’t do anything startlingly new in terms of storytelling, but he does bring a fresh interpretation to a familiar tale: the redemption of the washed-up artist. It also helps that Cooper has Jeff Bridges at the helm. Looking as bleary as a sleep-deprived Kris Kristofferson, Bridges gives a soulful, yet dry and witty performance as a forlorn singer whose wasted life is at odds with his songwriting talent.

Colin Farrell and Jeff Bridges
The story follows Blake as he hits the road doing concerts in bowling alleys, or seedy bars, and playing to older, nostalgic folks. They hope to connect to the man whose songs once became an indelible part of their lives. Blake knows that he can’t live up to that image so, although he never misses a show, he makes his participation in them vague and uncertain. (In one funny scene, he departs midway through a song to barf in a back alley before rejoining the group for the tune’s conclusion.) While Bad Blake performs in small towns with pick-up groups (who once admired him), his protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who sings Blake’s songs, sells out huge arenas and records hit albums. Sweet has had the success that continues to elude Bad. But Blake has grown used to dives and middle-aged groupies, hiding his bitterness in a bottle, until he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter for a Santa-Fe newspaper. Jean is a single-mom who loves country music – and the songs of Bad Blake – and she wants to do a feature piece on him. But rather than discussing his past, Blake sees a possible hopeful future in this grounded, level-headed beauty. At first glance, he remarks, in the spirit of a typical country lyric, “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.”

Crazy Heart is about how this bond between them, where they share the lonely, hurtful pining in Blake’s songs, can’t create a stable life when the singer is a barely functional alcoholic. But that’s where Crazy Heart is most original. If Blake can’t transcend the life he sings about in his songs, Jean hopes to find in the man the tender vulnerability she hears in his compositions. The film is basically about how popular music sometimes connects with us so strongly that we hope the artist is the person that we hear in their work. That’s why the romance between this solid working mom and this older broken down man is both believable and poignant – and also, why it can’t truly work. It can only inspire another aching lyric in another hurtin’ country song.

Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall
While it’s no secret that Jeff Bridges is one of our great actors, what makes him great is his ability to create distinctly personable portraits without a shade of self-consciousness in his acting. (When he does become self-conscious, as in his ridiculous caricature of the director in George Sluizer’s pointless American remake of The Vanishing, he comes across much worse than a more stylish actor might.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is a perfect match for Bridges since she plays Jean’s romantic longing close to the ground. She has no illusions about Blake, only a desire for something resembling what she loves most in his songs, so there is nothing self-destructive in her yearning. Although it’s a small role, Colin Farrell plays a Garth Brooks prototype without a hint of vanity. Tommy Sweet knows that he’s become a huge success because of Blake’s songs, so Farrell doesn’t turn Sweet into a conventional adversary. While the music in the film is composed mostly by T Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and Steven Broder, Bridges and Farrell do all their own singing and it brings a documentary naturalism to their performances.

Crazy Heart was co-produced by Robert Duvall (who has a minor part here) so the picture suggests something of the earlier Bruce Beresford movie Tender Mercies. But that film was so arid and minimal that Duvall’s alcoholic singer always seemed at a remote distance. (His stoic pain was depicted as a badge of integrity.) Crazy Heart is much looser and less formal, without the fundamentalist armour of Tender Mercies. The mercies in Crazy Heart instead are transitory, usually fragile, and much like the songs Bad Blake sings in his desire to find a way home. 

- originally published on January 16, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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