There are a lot of hotly-contested categories for the upcoming Academy Awards: Avatar versus The Hurt Locker … Sandra Bullock versus Meryl Streep … Kathryn Bigelow versus James Cameron. But at least two awards don’t seem even remotely up for grabs: It’s considered a given that Jeff Bridges will win best actor for portraying fictional country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart and that the same film’s primary theme song, “The Weary Kind,” is a shoo-in for best song.
But the movie’s backers aren’t taking any chances, so Bridges actually sang for his supper — or his Oscar — at an exclusive mini-concert in Los Angeles Monday night (Feb. 15) attended by a crowd heavy on Academy members. The actor was joined in his performance by T Bone Burnett, who produced the music for Crazy Heart as well as co-writing most of its songs, and alt-country favorite Ryan Bingham, who co-wrote “The Weary Kind” and has a small part in the film as a pickup musician. Also putting in cameo musical appearances at this unusual gig: Robert Duvall, Harry Dean Stanton and a seriously underrated honky-tonk pianist by the name of Elton John.
When Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for playing a country singer a few years ago, he dutifully hit the Oscar campaign trail but turned down requests to actually perform Johnny Cash songs in the flesh. But if Bridges is “weary” from the months of personal appearances and Q&As that are demanded of any Oscar contender, he was too game to let it get in the way of finally giving some of the movie’s songs a live reading. The actor seemed a little rusty as he launched into “Fallin’ and Flyin’,” but Burnett stepping up to the microphone to share harmony vocals on the choruses seemed to invigorate him, and Bridges was in finer form by the time he got to “Hold on You,” “Brand New Angel” and “I Don’t Know.”
After Bingham opened the show with a three-song set that included his likely Oscar winner, there was a surprise interlude as Crazy Heart co-star Duvall was coaxed to the stage. In the film and on the soundtrack, Duvall’s rendition of the gospel song “Live Forever” is a cappella, but the band quickly improvised an arrangement to back up the legendary actor — whose own role as a faded country singer in Tender Mercies was a cinematic forebear to this movie’s Bad Blake — with Big Love actor Stanton joining in on harmonica.
Due to the crowded conditions inside the club, not much of the crowd had noticed Elton John holding court at a back table throughout the evening. So it was a roar of genuine surprise that went up when Bridges asked, “Is Mr. John here? He’s gonna tinkle the black and whites a little bit!”
And EJ’s barrelhouse solos on the closing “I Don’t Know” served as a reminder of just how country-influenced his early ’70s albums like Honky Chateau and Tumbleweed Connection really were. John may be headed back in that direction, too: He’s about to go into the studio to record a collaboration with Leon Russell, produced by Burnett. (Burnett’s last project was a soon-to-be-released Willie Nelson album, and he’s also slated to produced Bingham’s next effort.)
This was certainly the first country concert ever to be introduced by Tonya Campos, disc jockey and program director of country radio station KKGO in Los Angeles, where the audience consisted largely of Bel Air-based movie folk. Among those crowded into the 200-capacity venue: fellow Crazy Heart nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal and her brother Jake, Mad Men star Jon Hamm, Woody Harrelson, Peter Fonda, Rebecca DeMornay, Frances Fisher; Blind Side director John Lee Hancock, Powers Booth, Elliott Gould and celebrated composer and Oscar nominee Hans Zimmer. As for country stars, there weren’t any on hand — unless you count actress Mary Kay Place, who, trivia buffs will remember, did have a Top 10 country album and a pair of Top 10 singles in 1976-77 while portraying aspiring singer Loretta Hagers on the TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
The swanky setting for the concert was Vibrato Grill & Jazz, a supper club owned by Herb Alpert that sits at the top of a canyon road just off Mulholland Drive. “What a cool joint, huh?” asked Burnett. “I think we should all start hanging out here. This is very Ocean’s Eleven. Seriously, let’s do it.” Given the competitive nature of Oscar campaigning, we half-expected to find dual best-song nominee Randy Newman out in the parking lot, giving an impromptu piano recital. But Elton John returning to his country-rock for a few glorious minutes would have been pretty impossible to top.
One place you won’t hear “The Weary Kind”: on this year’s Oscar telecast. For the first time in memory, the best song nominees won’t be performed during the ceremony — not even as a medley. We’ll try not to be paranoid about that call being made the very year a country song is finally likely to take the top prize.