Music biopic’s Oscar wins aren’t that Crazy

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win Sunday evening was unprecedented. Jeff Bridges’ win, however, was not.

Certainly for Bridges, a five-time Academy Award nominee, his Oscar victory for his performance in Crazy Heart is unprecedented — and long overdue — when considering his prolific film career. But this isn’t the first time an actor has garnered the coveted gold statue by portraying a musician.

Film and music have gone hand in hand since the early stages of moviemaking, when silent films frequently enhanced their soundless images with live accompaniment — a precursor to the elaborate scores now composed and orchestrated for everything from action-adventure flicks to intense dramas.

As technology developed and talkies, or sound films, came into existence in the late 1920s, music continued to play an integral role in Hollywood filmmaking. The earliest music videos date back to nearly 50 years before the inception of MTV, when singers would perform the popular songs of the era before a stagnant camera. And as moviemaking evolved, some of the most well-liked films during the ’30s and ’40s often featured lengthy song-and-dance numbers á la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The trend of the large-scale Hollywood musical carried well into the ’50s with the beloved Singin’ in the Rain and Guys and Dolls, the ’60s with the Academy Award-winning West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and the ’70s with the Liza Minelli vehicle Cabaret. But the magic and power of song-and-dance storytelling seems to have fizzled out in the last 30 years.

Double threat · Jeff Bridges — seen here with director Scott Cooper — also portrayed a tortured musician in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys. - Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Nowadays, flashy on-screen musicals generally flatline in theaters, as their glittering costumes and kick lines continually appear more exhausted than energetic. This is clearly evident in Rob Marshall’s latest Broadway revival, Nine, which opened last Christmas Day to meager box-office revenue and poor critical reviews.

But in the large-scale musical’s absence, Hollywood has witnessed the rise of the personal musician’s tale. Although considerably more intense and intimate than the typical musical’s shimmering flare, Hollywood’s newest way to pay homage to musicians teeters on the line between compelling and cliché.

Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, which is based on a novel of the same name, is the latest independent drama that details the amoral life frequently stereotyped when discussing musicians.

Although aging and possessing a hard-to-ignore beer belly, Bridges’ Bad Blake — who is said to be inspired by several rough-around-the-edges singer-songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings — is inexplicably endearing. A whiskey-loving country singer with a hard exterior and disregard for his deteriorating health, Blake is the epitome of washed up; it’s his apparent love for music, however, that keeps the audience rooting for him.

No stranger to showing off his musical prowess on screen, Bridges starred as a gruff, chain-smoking, prodigious pianist condemned to playing in hotel lounges and stuffy restaurants with his less-talented brother (played by Bridges’ real-life sibling, Beau) in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys. Akin to Crazy Heart, Bridges performed all of his own musical tricks and radiated that same down-and-out charm. Both characters had an enviable talent and a consuming desire to make something of their music careers and the evident failures that followed tainted both characters’ wills to live.

It’s exactly that quality — an obsession with creating that threatens all that is constant and balanced in a musician’s life — that attracts outsiders to these other-worldly artists.

This attraction was measured just two years ago at the 80th Academy Awards ceremony, where actress Marion Cotillard unexpectedly won the Oscar for her turn as iconic French singer Édith Piaf in the biopic La Vie en Rose. Like Bad Blake, Piaf’s life was plagued with affairs, addiction and tragedy, and it’s her unending suffering that not only drove the emotion behind Piaf’s voice but also the film’s narrative.

And in 2005, Joaquin Phoenix received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Johnny Cash, another country singer-songwriter with a drinking problem, in Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon, in her role as June Carter, a popular country singer who forged a romantic relationship with the married Cash, took home the Oscar for her performance. Walk the Line, too, centered around Cash’s uncontrollable alcoholism and tumultuous affair with Carter that took a toll on both of their careers.

It’s hard to say what’s more alluring to an audience: the creative spark behind the artists’ work or the passion behind their personal lives. Part underdog story, part drug-induced diary entry, the plight of the musician, whether factual or fictional, is intriguing to those living comparably average lives.

Every musician portrayed onscreen provides us with a portrait hedonism, and, as viewers, it lets us indulge without consequences. But as moviegoers, what we truly desire to see by the film’s end credits is redemption.

While Piaf and Cash found very little redeemed at the end of their lives, any audiophile knows that Bridges’ Blake cleans up too easily to be reality.

Lauren Barbato is a senior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column “Sound Check” runs Tuesdays.