Coming home with a movie soundtrack by T Bone Burnett is a little like receiving a mixed CD from your best friend: you pretty much know what the general aural landscape is likely to be, even as you brace yourself for a few surprises. The effect is compounded if you buy the soundtrack before you see the movie. A friend of mine puzzled over the inclusion of no less than three takes of “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” before he finally saw O Brother, Where Art Thou. Prior to the movie, the alternate takes did not sustain enough tension to keep him tuned in. The ideal listener for O Brother is someone who loved the movie, and wants the CD for a souvenir. O Brother's polar opposite is the soundtrack to The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which pulls together music of incredible depth and nuance for a movie that lacked both (A).
Burnett has become the go-to guy for people desiring a certain “Americana” sound. His own influences include two-string rockabilly and steel-guitar country, usually with a dash of beatnik bongos thrown in. He loves — he lives — to play, which is often the spirit needed to bring out a movie star's chops as vocalist. Thus, when the audience actually hears Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing together they can easily enough buy into these actors embodying Johnny Cash and June Carter, even if they'd rather hear the original on the drive back home.
The Crazy Heart soundtrack (A, e) has that same element at work. Not having seen the movie, I can well imagine that Jeff Bridges' slurry crooning carries the story where it needs to go. Much of what he sings is mixed to sound like it's being heard from the back of a smoky nightclub, which keeps the tonality from falling too hard on the ears. Even so, when the film's original material is interrupted by the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Lucinda Williams, George Jones and Townes Van Zandt, I can't help but notice there's something missing when the movie stars take the mic.
Never mind: it all rests easily enough on the eardrums. In the pantheon of T Bone soundtracks, it falls a few steps from Divine Secrets, just a shade below O Brother — at least until I get to sit myself in a theatre.
Update: I have a few further thoughts on the matter of movie stars' singing, in the comments.