Crazy Heart: another Hollywood sermon

Musician Joe Jackson on why drinking, smoking singers are now depicted as dangerous rather than glamorous.

Joe Jackson

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Last Sunday, Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, an ageing country-and-western star, in Crazy Heart. For me, about three-quarters into the film, which has a good soundtrack and some fine acting, I got the sinking feeling that I’d been tricked. A pretty good movie had turned into a grating sermon.

Most movies about musicians show them trying to deal with pressures through booze and drugs, and inevitably self-destructing. But my own experience as a touring musician for 30 years is that while I’ve seen a few burnouts, they’re a small minority. The smart ones quit their destructive habits – or quit touring. The even smarter ones learn how to pace themselves, and still have a good time. Watching Bad Blake chain-smoke and swill whisky, though, I would have bet any money that Hollywood wasn’t going to let him out of this movie alive.

For a while, things start looking up for Bad. He meets Jean, a rather implausibly young and attractive woman with a cute little son called Buddy. Will Bad be true to his name and blow it? Well, he almost does, when he drives his car off the road and wakes up in hospital. This is the moment of reckoning. His broken ankle will heal, the doctor says, but if he doesn’t stop smoking and drinking and lose 25 pounds, he will soon die from cancer, emphysema, a stroke, or all three.

Bad then leaves the hospital and promptly goes back on the sauce. I watched the film in New York, and there were audible groans as he lit a cigarette. I wanted to cheer, which I guess shows me up as an irredeemable degenerate. I apologise: it was becoming clear, at this point in the movie, that Bad was an alcoholic, and I know very well that an alcoholic is not a good thing to be. I know this because I’ve known a few alcoholics.

So Bad has been warned, but will not listen. And here comes the thunderbolt. Bad is trusted to take his girlfriend’s son out for the afternoon, but while he’s ordering a drink, the kid wanders off.

Never mind that this happens not in, say, a war zone, but in a shopping mall. Never mind that the shopping mall is teeming with security guards, who find little Buddy in about five minutes (after pausing briefly to lecture Bad about his drinking). Never mind that little boys will sometimes wander off if you take your eyes off them for three seconds. Never mind that this could have happened to anyone, even if they’d stopped to buy a Bible instead of a bourbon. Jean is outraged and the relationship is over.

Once again, we expect Bad to crash and burn. But what actually happens is, given the politically correct climate of today’s Hollywood, probably the only possible alternative: the polar opposite. Bad goes to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

I confess I have my own bias here. I’m convinced that many people are in AA for peculiar, narcissistic reasons. I’ve been to a few AA meetings myself, as a guest and observer, and they gave me the creeps. The people I’ve known who have quit drinking without AA have all seemed healthier and less neurotic, and it strikes me as sad that the only alternative to self-destruction should be a quasi-religious cult, with a Holy Book, a set of rules and its own Devil; booze continues to occupy a place of dark, exalted power in these peoples’ lives.

I’m not the first to point out that we live in strangely puritanical times, in which everything is seen as dangerously ‘addictive’ and the road to Redemption lies in therapy. Nevertheless, I try to put my personal reservations about AA aside when people say it has saved their lives. It’s pretty hard to argue with that. Yet Crazy Heart does seem to me to reflect a climate in which people are obsessed with risk-prevention, in which children are wrapped in cotton wool, and no middle ground is seen between destructive excess and puritanical self-denial.

Oddly enough, though, when Bad goes back to Jean, apologising from the bottom of his heart and promising to stay clean and sober, she rejects him. She rejects him even though he’s willing to sacrifice the name he’s always used and go back to the one he was christened with, which, of course, turns out to be something humble and vaguely funny: Otis.

This was puzzling to me. Maybe she’s one of those women who, having got the kind of nice, safe, unthreatening modern man she thought she wanted, doesn’t find him so sexy any more. Maybe she’s still punishing Bad/Otis for the shopping mall incident. Then again, maybe the filmmakers are punishing him for disobeying doctors’ orders. One thing’s for sure: while Bad may be better off without his drinking problem, all the colour, humour and fun seem to go out of the movie along with it. Bad may have been bad, but Otis is kind of boring.

I suppose Crazy Heart is well-intentioned, and has a valid story to tell. But I wonder how many people were, like me, left pining for the kind of old Frank Sinatra movie in which an entertainer’s life is one big party and people admire and envy him for it. I couldn’t help trying to imagine Bad Blake as played by, say, Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum. And I couldn’t help mentally writing my own alternate ending. Two of them, in fact.

In the first one, Bad eases up on the gas pedal, loses 10 or 15 pounds (he really didn’t need to lose 25), gets a shave and a decent haircut – and gets the girl. In the second, he roars off into the night, as ornery as ever, clutching a bottle of bourbon and telling us all to go to hell.

Joe Jackson is a musician and writer. He is a supporter of Save Our Pubs & Clubs:, a cross-party campaign that wants amendments to the current smoking ban in Britain.

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