T Bone Burnett has scored and written songs for many high-profile projects, including “Cold Mountain” for Anthony Minghella as well as “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the Coens. But his new film, “Crazy Heart,” ended up touching the producer- musician in “far more ways than I could have imagined.” That’s partly because Burnett, in addition to all his musical contributions, made his debut as a movie producer on the film, helping to raise financing as well as developing writer-director Scott Cooper’s script (based on the novel by Thomas Cobb).
But mainly it’s because the story — of an alcoholic, hard-living country music singer long past his peak — “really rang true to me and hit a nerve,” he explains. “I’ve known guys like this, and when I read the script, it wasn’t some idealized Hollywood idea of a musician’s life. It’s an unvarnished look at this character.”
That character — Bad Blake — is wholly inhabited onscreen by Jeff Bridges, “who gives one of the greatest performances as a musician I’ve ever seen,” Burnett says. A friend of the actor since they both appeared in “Heaven’s Gate,” Burnett offered him the role, noting, “Jeff’s one of the main reasons it’s so grounded in reality. He really plays guitar and sings, and there’s no vanity in his performance. There’s a great scene where he’s lying on the bed, badly hung over as usual, with drool on the pillow. He’s totally believable — which is rarely the case in films like these.”
Burnett, who coached Bridges to base his singing style on Leonard Cohen and Don Williams, “rather than the obvious country thing,” reveals that ample doses of Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Bruton, the late country songwriter (and Kristofferson’s guitarist for 40 years), also went into Blake’s DNA. “I called Stephen first when we started this project, because he more than anyone else that I know is Bad Blake,” he notes. “He drove around the country in his Suburban playing dives for years, and he knew that life of a working musician intimately. And he also had the broadest knowledge of country music of anyone I knew.”
Burnett cringes at the almost always ham-fisted and inaccurate portrayals of his profession — “actors pretending to play piano or whatever, which takes you right out of the movie. And a big part of music movies is not just where the actor’s hands are, but is he playing the right kind of guitar? And they usually get that wrong, too.”
Determined to avoid those pitfalls and the usual cliches, he helped hone Cooper’s script and enlisted Bruton to work with Bridges on and off the set. “And Stephen and I wrote most of the songs, and we produced them together,” he reports. Bruton never lived to see the completed film, which is dedicated to him. “He died a week or so after we finished mixing, but he was the soul of the movie,” Burnett says.
Robert Duvall also played a key role in the production, co-starring as Blake’s oldest friend. “He was the patron saint of the picture,” Burnett says, “and I think he got a kick out of it, and the way it kind of leads back to ‘Tender Mercies.’
I just love the process of putting music and images together,” Burnett adds. “For me, it’s magical.”