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Katelyn Beaty

Looking for Grace in All the Wrong Places

A film that mines pain’s treasures.

Bad Blake cannot ignore his impending death. At age 57, the country singer looks 20 years his senior, carrying a perpetual limp and stubborn cough. His conversation is punctuated by grunts and heaves, his word choice floridly vulgar. When we meet him he's arrived at the Spare Room Bowl in the middle of New Mexico, where his agent has booked him for the night. He gets out of his '78 Suburban—"Bess"—cursing God and his agent while emptying a jug of urine in the alley lot, belt buckle still undone. When the manager of the Spare Room kindly refuses to pick up Blake's tab at the bar, he heads to a motel, falling asleep watching porn and drinking McClure's, his favorite whiskey, to which he's been faithful all these years.

At once we know that the hero of Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper's debut film based on the 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb, is a tragicomic one. Finding sizable success years ago in the country music scene, Blake now has $10 to his name and a record label that's losing interest. Serial marriages and an estranged son have left the former legend rootless, carried on only by enclaves of fans and a long-suffering agent. A tragicomic hero needs an ironic thread running through his life: Blake's is his breezy ability to write poignant songs, which are recorded by a younger artist Blake mentored, and performed in sold-out venues to foot-stomping acclaim. "I used to be somebody / now I am somebody else," Blake sings from the bowling alley's makeshift stage, in one of the film's several concert scenes; "who I'll be tomorrow is anybody's guess." These musical performances offer us Blake distilled down to his most honest, likeable self, and reveal how deeply Crazy Heart draws from the tropes of country music. Cooper's love for "real country" (think the grizzled great-uncle of today's Nashville-bred talent) led him to recruit Americana songwriter-producer T-Bone Burnett and the late guitarist Stephen Bruton for the score. Burnett and Bruton give us twangy guitar ...

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