Crazy Heart (2009)


On YouTube, under “Dexter Gordon–Lady Bird,” there is a precious video from 1964 of a sublime performance by tenor saxophonist Gordon of composer Tadd Dameron’s tune from the bebop period in jazz. Someone called “Caponsacchi” has posted a brief appraisal on that YouTube page that is among the handful of great writings about music I’ve read:

“No one has ever played this extemporaneous music with more assuredness (than Gordon), as if each note could be the only possible note, nothing tentative, no meaningless altissimo histrionics or confusing of musical storytelling with liturgical incantation.”

Not many have the old ear for bebop. Besides, the great on-rolling wave of cultural history has already drowned the style.

It took Gordon, a genius, years of scuffling, being poor and down-and-out, self-exiling himself to Europe in between prison stays for heroin use, to reach that “assuredness” of “musical storytelling” that sweeps you up and along for a few minutes like the glory of a great mathematical proof dawning and then cognitively thrill-riding you, then leaving you out in the cold again down on the hard ground. As often, a lifetime of hard dues-paying OJT plus talent plus inspiration = a few moments of glory.

Gordon’s is American art, homegrown and hard-won, never really popular but distilling our Experience; and Gordon, and his hipster kin, hustling, sometimes hungry, shivering in cold apartments, living unreliably the blues-in-love with good women to groupies, getting cheated by recording company executives and club owners, and yet keeping on refining, honing, stretching out those great “licks” which are jazz music phrases in principle like great poetic lines in literature, for example, Marlowe’s “mighty line,” were artists at any cost, and the cost was high.

So: They stand in a great tradition. There’s little but sweeping confidence in Shakespeare’s lines, an out-and-out radical in his day as an extemporaneous master not with notes but words, albeit there is incomparably beautiful literary music in the lines of the Bard: He loved the sound of it, no doubt of that.

There’s an acclaimed 1986 French movie whose jazz musician hero, “Dale Turner,” is a composite of Lester Young and Bud Powell in 1950s Paris bebop expatriate days and starring Dexter Gordon as Turner: ‘Round Midnight. By 1986, Gordon, playing some transporting tenor saxophone in the movie, is not the young lion you see in that 1964 “Lady Bird” video and the great cultural history wave is rearing up just behind his aging, sagging, turned-away back.

So there goes Dexter Gordon, away and forgotten, a great master with nearly forsaken longevity for whom brevity is the soul of It (it had to be brevity). “Lady Bird,” for those who like the style of rare, fleeting musical licks it supremely sounds in the hands of Gordon, is a nearly forgotten few minutes of the most engrossing eternity: yes, more than an intimation of it; the paradox of sublime art and, more generally, sublime thought; and a harbinger of what might feature in, as they say, “a perfect world.”

This pathos of fleeting great American musical styles, glorious spring days soon in twilight and never to be repeated, is exactly what approximately the first third of Crazy Heart is about. Here it’s Country and Western music.

I’m not a C&W enthusiast, but I found this movie engrossing and moving.

Jeff Bridges as an over-the-hill one-time big-time and above all pioneering C&W star singer and songwriter and guitarist, Otis “Bad” Blake, now 57 and past his time and toward whom that enormous frothy wave is rolling, is scuffling, broke, alcoholic and playing bowling alleys and noisy bars in the Southwest. Bridges gives a brilliant performance of the inevitable decline of a genius stylistic artist in a music moving many Americans, telling their story, but falling behind the Next Thing. He knows that the musical tradition he extended is being trivialized by his protege, Tommy Sweet (“Sweet” bespeaking the trivializing of the honest, down-to-earth tone, swing and song lyrics of the best C&W which, like much of our music, originate in Old Pop and Old Mom blues). Protege Sweet is in the vulgarizing parts of Crazy Heart held in proud contempt by Bad Blake.

In its early parts, Crazy Heart reminds of the excited purity, the getting-to-the-heart-of-things, and the implicit storyline of Gordon when he is playing “Lady Bird.” It’s not feel-good but it’s of integrity, humor and paradoxically leaves you with a rueful catharsis–a facing up to the crux of flux–the hero’s brief day in the sun–that is finally uplifting. The principle of the blues is at work: listening to them makes you get over them because of their timeless beauty. The first song we hear Blake play and sing in Crazy Heart, “Hold on You,” is the best one; it’s transporting; it’s bluesy; it really swings. The hair of the dog that bit you. Storytelling, the best of it in any art form, does that. A priceless paradox.

Of course, the last two-thirds of Crazy Heart surrender to the Hollywood Feel Good. Probably the Suits intervened. Or the screenwriter had a meeting in an imposing office to get straightened out, get with the program, get those dumbed-down cineplex-goers’ butts in the seats.

In Crazy Heart the usual eventual pandering amounts to dubbing the equivalent of Lawrence Welk or Madonna over the swinging, superb, down-and-dirty C&W of the raw sweep of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. You know the drill: they’ve transformed the true sense of C&W conveyed in the classic song, “I told You I love You, Now Get out!” into the ethos of How I Met Your Mother.

Onward rolls the wave.

“Lady Bird:” Dexter Gordon

“Hold on You”: Jeff Bridges

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