The Dallas Morning News
T Bone Burnett pays tribute to pal Stephen Bruton
As soon as T Bone Burnett began work in earnest on what would become the film Crazy Heart, he knew exactly whom to call first: Stephen Bruton.
The Fort Worth-raised musicians and lifelong friends, with help from fellow Texas troubadour Ryan Bingham, set about crafting a fictional back catalog for the film’s protagonist, faded country legend Bad Blake (played by Jeff Bridges). It’s those songs — deeply felt, melodic and, most important, genuine — that form the backbone of writer-director Scott Cooper’s cinematic debut.
The compositions also stand as something of a final testament for Bruton, who died in May from complications of cancer. Crazy Heart opened locally Friday.
“He, more than anyone else I know, had the humor and the wit and the experience and the point of view of life on the road,” says Burnett from Nash- ville. “He had the greatest, most realistic, bitterly funny version of life on the road. I definitely wanted him to come in and write the songs and just be there for Jeff to watch. A little bit of Stephen lives on in the character.”
Indeed, a quiet sense of melancholy informs every frame of Crazy Heart, a timeless if slightly shopworn story (adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel) about a troubled soul working to pull his life back together. Bad Blake is burned out from one too many bourbons, one too many dive-bar gigs and a sense that a better life passed him by, a notion reinforced by the success of prote´ge´ Tommy Sweet (an uncredited Colin Farrell). Upon meeting feisty reporter and single mother Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Blake finds himself at a crossroads: Continue along a destructive path or try salvaging what remains?
The film’s almost palpable sense of loss, made flesh by Bridges’ wonderfully acute performance, allows Bruton, by extension, a sort of posthumous victory lap. Burnett, 61, is gratified that one of his friend’s final projects is not only seeing the light of day, but receiving a wide release over the next few months and garnering some serious awards buzz.
“If Stephen had left us without this movie, it would be probably be more difficult to keep his flame alive,” Burnett says.
“This was a good goingaway party for him. Everyone’s sorry he’s not here to catch this, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see Stephen Bruton’s name in the L.A. Film Critics awards. We’ll see where it goes.”
(Bruton and Burnett were honored by the L.A. Film Critics Association for best music score on Dec. 13.)
Burnett, of course, is no stranger to the world of film scoring; he won a Grammy and an Oscar for his work on the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and has contributed to a handful of films, including 2005’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
His fascination with blending images and sounds reaches back to his formative years in Fort Worth. For the Kimbell Art Museum’s grand opening in 1972, Burnett and friend John Fleming were drafted to create a film about the museum’s inaugural gala. That short film ignited an enduring love affair between Burnett and the cinema, a union he says still brings him “a real thrill.”
“It was a cocktail party and I had to find some music for it,” he says. “I noticed you could completely change the tenor of the party by the music you put with it. It was a revelation to me, to see how much music affected picture when you put them together.”
He has a staggering number of projects that are either completed or still in progress: He checked in from the set of Tough Trade, a TV series about three generations of a fictional country music family that he’s executive-producing; 2010 will see Burnett-assisted records from Jakob Dylan, Robert Randolph, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and John Mel- lencamp, to name a few; and then there’s his nomination for a producer of the year Grammy next month. But Crazy Heart is his primary passion these days.
The reasons for his tireless support of the movie aren’t terribly difficult to divine. For as much as the film honors the legacy of one of Burnett’s dearest friends, it also seems, in a fitting bit of cosmic coincidence, to sum up his deeply felt perspective on the music business and those who bend notes and sculpt lyrics for a living.
“We’re in an interregnum at the moment, where the old is dying but isn’t dead and the new is being born but isn’t here yet and the music biz has disintegrated,” Burnett says. “So much of the audience these days thinks … music’s just junk food. You eat it, you consume it and then you forget about it. Music’s not like that to me; music’s more like air to me — you breathe it and you keep breathing it.
“I’m 61 years old now and I have a sense of responsibility to the people who come after us. I think anything we can do to show the humanity of a musician and what he actually goes through [is a good thing] … I believe musicians are worthy of great love and respect.”