Playing the biopic charts with straight-ahead attitude, “Crazy” is as steady and conservative as its subject, country/jazz guitar phenom Hank Garland, is impulsive, akimbo and troubled. Though formulaic, the film is also unusually classy and well turned-out for a period production made on a small indie budget, and displays genuine sensitivity toward forward-looking artists in the seemingly opposing fields of country and jazz. This should lend the attractively packaged melodrama some hybrid B.O. appeal.
Needless opening scene of Garland (Waylon Payne) getting tossed in a psychiatric hospital ward telegraphs too much of the tragedy to come. A flashback to 1945 Nashville proves a better way to intro young Garland (Mikey Hawley) as he wows the Grand Ole Opry crowd — and no less an introducer than Hank Williams — with his brilliant, dexterous fret work. Director Rick Bieber displays some style in a fine dissolve 10 years forward, with Garland now the most requested sideman in the business, considered essential to such stars as Roy Orbison (Brian Jones) and Patsy Cline (Mandy Barnett).
Even though the film is conceived strictly along standard this-happened-then-that-happened lines, its character, music and period detailing are sharp and intelligent. Garland’s cadre of fellow musicians (Scott Michael Campbell’s Billy Byrd, John Fleck’s Lloyd, Timothy Omundson’s Paul) witness his personal rise, and the inevitable cracks develop as his career transcends theirs. Hank becomes a complicated mix of decency and raging perfectionism, capable of launching into fits that often lead to tussles in recording studios.
He’s also a cad, yet even here, Payne’s kindly portrayal never paints Garland as a thoughtless stud bagging as many groupies as he can. Garland’s habit of flashing his guitar’s reflection in the eyes of a pretty woman in the audience makes for terrific movie stuff — a sure sign that this is a film stronger on small details than big story arcs.
It’s this seductive power that “Crazy” dramatizes as Garland’s Achilles heel: Local gal Evelyn (Ali Larter, easily her best perf in a shaky career) marries him, only to soon discover his real marriage is to the road, to clubs, to gigging — and, most remarkably of all, to busting out beyond country’s restrictive forms to jazz’s endless horizons.
Pic sketches this creative quest rather than exploring it in depth, although fans will appreciate some wonderful sections in which Garland catches his first sight of master guitarist Wes Montgomery in a Chicago club, sits in with Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, and records “Jazz Winds” with Joe Benjamin, Joe Morello and a very young Gary Burton. This, along with some fine Nashville recording moments with Elvis Presley (Jason Alan Smith), Orbison and Cline, illustrate what a fecund music period the ’50s were.
The sordid, emotionally toxic times with Evelyn are obvious a hundred miles before they arrive, dulling the edge of the final reels. Payne offers glints of Garland’s true insanity in his dealings with nefarious producer Ryan Bradford (David Conrad), and the tender portrayals by Payne and Larter give some humanity to the expected meller bathos.
Support color runs far and wide, from Campbell’s vulnerable Billy and Beau Baxter’s flinty producer to Brent Briscoe as a racist union rep who threatens Garland.
Lovely sense of the times is nicely managed by lenser Craig Haagensen, production designer Philip Toolin and costume designer Kristen M. Burke, who balance a movie-movie nostalgia with all-American simplicity. Song selection, aided by music supervisor Richard Rudolph, suggests a considerable knowledge of two disparate American forms.