(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Looming on the 2010 music horizon are new country music dramas in movies and on TV. But don’t expect them to be full of new themes and new subjects. It’s going to be pretty much what has been presented before.
Mainly, they’ll be about washed-up former country music stars and drinking and dirty dealing and aspiring, starry-eyed wannabe stars. What else is there about country music, in the eyes of Hollywood and TV? Not much of anything that I can see. You know what sells. And so do they.
Coming up is Love Don’t Let Me Down, a movie about a failed female country star and her husband-manager, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw. They set out on a comeback tour with an up-and-coming young female singer and a former beauty queen. Guess what happens.
Also on the immediate horizon is a one-hour TV melodrama show called Tough Trade, starring the playwright and actor Sam Shepard. It’s about three generations of a prominent Nashville musical family (can you say the Hank Williams family?) and their drinking and playing around and general wantonness. As if Dallas became a musical and were transported to Nashville.
First up in 2010, though, is the major contender, the movie Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-starring in the major roles, with Robert Duvall in a major supporting role and T Bone Burnett supplying the musical score, along with the late singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton. They also provide (along with Ryan Bingham) several original songs for Bridges to sing. He sings about as well as Joaquin Phoenix did in Walk the Line.
To my way of thinking, I would prefer a major free-thinking talent such as an Ennio Morricone to be considered to score soundtracks for such free-wheeling frontier and country-themed movies and just write atmospheric, soaring music that advances and complements the story and not to try to concoct convincing country hits. Movies such as Walk the Line and The Buddy Holly Story had the advantage of having genuine hit songs to draw from. T Bone and Stephen are very, very good, but the movie’s music on my first and only listening and viewing thus far was not totally convincing. The one thing that jumped out sharply at me was the obvious fact that the one time a real Waylon Jennings song (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”) was played in the movie, it was so startlingly real and distinctive that it totally dwarfed the music surrounding it.
Jeff Bridges may well get an Oscar for a very convincing role portraying Bad Blake, a stove-up 50-something former country star now broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys and lowdown dives for money for gasoline and bourbon, which are his two essential fuels. He’s driving himself around on this low-rent tour of the West in a beat-up jalopy and playing with pickup bands. We learn he ruined his family life by honky-tonking and general carousing and hasn’t seen his wife or son in decades. He starts out playing a hard-bitten chain-smoking Waylon Jennings and slowly transforms into a more introspective and — dare I say it? — sensitive Kris Kristofferson.
He meets Maggie Gyllenhaal in a beer joint. She’s an up-and-coming young small-town journalist who wants an interview and soon gets more than that and they wind up in the sack together and shortly seem to become enchanted with each other. But you know that will be doomed. And along the way he runs into his former musical protégé, who is now a rising young superstar, and you can guess what will happen there.
It’s a very good movie, and as I say, on the whole it comes across as genuine. My major drawback hesitation is that this character has been played before, and much more convincingly, by Rip Torn in the early ’70s movie Payday and by Robert Duvall in the ’80s drama, Tender Mercies. Payday remains, for me, the best and grittiest, and most realistic country music movie ever made. Torn was the absolute down and dirty and unredemptive Waylon/Johnny Cash hellraiser side of this character. And Duvall in Mercies was the redemptive Kristofferson side character. Both Torn and Duvall gave incredible performances in their films, probably the best of their lives.
The same sort of washed-up former star with huge family and personal problems was portrayed marvelously by Mickey Rourke in last year’s film, The Wrestler.
These days a realistic country music movie should perhaps actually be about a cartel that essentially grows and grooms an ideal, buff and good-looking young star candidate and hires songwriters and voice coaches or — more accurately — highly-skilled Pro Tools sound engineers to perfect the sound. Then they place the budding young star (or group) on the right TV show, with the right sponsor, into the right movie, and with a glamorous date/companion who will advance the career and with a song release that can be prompted/goosed into a big chart hit.
Or, it could be about a very young girl from Pennsylvania who, early in her life, convinces her parents to move to Nashville so that she can pursue her dreams of becoming a big music star. She learns to write real-life songs about herself and about all the other girls like her. And — she becomes a big star! Then, before she’s 20 years old, she has a fantastic year. She sells more records than anyone else in the world, wins every major award that there is, appears on all the right TV shows, is loved around the world and is even menaced on TV by the perfect villain, which unites many different audiences who want to defend her.
Then, she retires. To become a nun. Or a missionary. And everyone lives happily ever after.