The Music That Feeds “Crazy Heart” - Rolling Stone
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The Music That Feeds “Crazy Heart”

Behind the songs that transform Jeff Bridges into Bad Blake

Jeff Bridges strums his guitar, works on original drawings and explains the birth of Crazy Heart in exclusive behind-the-scenes video from his RS photo shoot.

To the surprise of no one, Jeff Bridges was nominated in the Best Actor category of the Academy Awards yesterday. But it wasn’t always so. On November 19, 2009, a New York Times headline read “A Surprise Gets Buzz for Oscars.” It topped a story that summarized the unexpectedly rapid rise of Crazy Heart and visibility of Bridges, who quickly generated word of mouth for his performance as the grizzled Bad Blake, a country legend reduced to appearances in bowling alleys. As described in the current issue of RS, Bridges has generally avoided setting his expectations too high both early and late in the process, but as the film steadily advances towards matching its reported budget of $7 million (it will certainly grow well beyond that mark), he’s firmly emerged as the Oscar frontrunner.

What has become the year’s signal indie-film business story started ever-so-humbly with writer-director Scott Cooper’s adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel of the same title, but the essence of the film’s success came when T Bone Burnett (Walk the Line, The Big Lebowski) and co-producer Stephen Bruton began working up the soundtrack’s songs in what Burnett calls “seances” at his Los Angeles house. Burnett first met Bridges 30 years ago while playing a bit part as Bridges’ character’s assistant in Heaven’s Gate. Over five or six months, the co-producers, Cooper and Bridges all worked on grooving original songs to fit with Bridges’ evocative vocal style. Burnett said they aimed for him to portray someone who, like Bruton, “wasn’t as much a country musician as he was a Texas musician.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal on her Crazy Heart connection with Jeff Bridges.

Kris Kristofferson is another singer Bridges has credited as a role model of sorts for Bad Blake. “That’s always a mixed blessing,” Kristofferson says. “I’m glad my life’s not been as rocky as this latest guy in Crazy Heart.”

In the beginning, singer-songwriter (and Bridges’ oldest childhood friend) John Goodwin was there. “He wrote the melody and the words that started the whole thing off,” Burnett says. “He jumped in feet first, which we all appreciated, ’cause that’s the hardest step, that first one. It’s actually the first song you hear in the movie; he just started off with that guitar lick and that melody — he put the boat in the water and shoved it off.”

“It was like this little village rose around Scott Cooper’s dream,” says Goodwin. Sometimes sitting in was young Texan Ryan Bingham, who was also nominated for an Oscar for his co-composition with Burnett, “The Weary Kind.” Bingham, a taciturn ex-rodeo cowboy, was struck by the dramatic power Bridges brought to the game when he had a bit part as leader of a pick-up band Bad would use for a bowling alley gig. He knew Bridges from friendly sessions with T Bone, but he says, “When we actually did the scene, I knocked on the motel room door and he opened it and here was the guy I’d never met before, totally different and really pissed off.” On the mid-January night Bridges picked up his Golden Globe as Best Actor, Burnett and Bingham’s “The Weary Kind” also won an award, but Bingham had wandered off, and missed the moment.

He may get another chance, if the Academy voters agree with Jeff Bridges. He has said that without Bingham and Burnett’s song and its haunting lyric “This ain’t no place to fall behind/Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try,” “we wouldn’t have had a movie.”

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