Director/Screenwriter: Rick Bieber
2008 Big Island Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s not often that a musician becomes a legend in both country and jazz genres, but Hank Garland was no ordinary musician. A South Carolina native, Garland went to Nashville to earn his fortune. He became a valued session man who played with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and others. By hanging out in blues joints, he became familiar with the roots of jazz. His successful tours of big northern cities netted him his beautiful wife Evelyn and a reputation as a jazz guitarist. A horrific car crash damaged his brain and robbed him of his ability to play. Eventually, he taught himself to play again and came back to play briefly near the end of his life. This is a life that has been long overdue for a biopic. Now we have one—Crazy, which won the Best Feature at the Big Island Film Festival.
Unlike some biopics that span many years of a person’s life, Bieber chooses judiciously from the momentous meetings and milestones of Garland’s life. Beginning with Garland’s first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, Garland (Waylon Payne) gets some advice from Hank Williams, Sr. (Steve Vai): “Start with a fast one. That always gets the audience going.” Hank’s fluid guitar picking instantly attracts a distracted audience, and he’s on his way.
His career in Nashville as a session man and ladies man is going well, and he befriends a number of musicians, including Billy Byrd (Scott Michael Campbell). However, his inability to get credit—and pay—as a player and a songwriter frustrates him and begins a long enmity with record executive Ryan Bradford (David Conrad). He decides to go on tour in the north. He meets Evelyn (Ali Larter), who quickly beds and bewitches him. Evelyn comes to visit Hank in Nashville a couple of months later, and they are soon married. However, Hank’s growing success—a regular on The Eddie Arnold Show, on-call musician for Elvis, jazz stints in New York—makes Evelyn feel increasingly isolated. She has sex with Bradford, Hank receives the pictures, and he violently confronts Bradford. Evelyn goes to Chicago with their young daughter, then calls Hank to come pick her up. On the road, another car—presumably sent by Bradford—rams Hank’s car repeatedly and sends him down a ravine, crippling and nearly killing him. His slow recovery in Florida leads to the denouement on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry legends tribute, where he plays his signature song “Sugarfoot Rag”.
There are many great moments in this film. For example, during Hank’s first appearance on stage, he notices that his pick guard reflects light into the audience. He uses the beam to choose his “date” for the evening. When he uses the trick on Evelyn and goes up to her after his set, she asks him if that always works on the girls back home. Nonetheless, she chooses him because of the light he projects from within to warm her empty life. In an inevitable scene in Hank’s hospital room, she tells him about this hope and then says she learned too late that the beam only shines when he plays, “and now you can’t even do that.”
I felt sympathy for Evelyn at times, but my heart truly went out to Hank, whom she betrayed to his near death and then abandoned. Bieber directs his cast from the inside out, palpably capturing the light inside Hank/Payne and the ugliness in the beautiful Evelyn/Larter. One very touching scene has Billy Byrd, now a troubled alcoholic whom nobody will hire, drive to Hank’s home and sit outside in his car, forbidden by Evelyn from coming around anymore. Hank climbs in the car, and Billy pleads with him to take his guitar—the guitar they both invented—and hold it. “It’s the most beautiful thing I own, and if I keep it, I’m going to sell it. I really don’t want to sell it.” The love between the two men is deeply felt, and the scene plays with great emotional truth. Other standout performances include Lane Garrison as Hank’s brother Bill and John Fleck as Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas, the leader of Hank’s studio band.
The outstanding music includes original recordings of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and Payne as Hank Garland doing “Sugarfoot Rag.” The closing credits show the real Hank doing the song as well. The story does rather play like a standard country biopic, with a crazy and troubled woman at its core. Nonetheless, no matter how the script was embellished for dramatic purposes, the film largely reflects an emotional reality that felt true.
The hubby and I saw the film right after the music biopic of Darby Crash and The Germs, What We Do Is Secret. While I preferred The Germs movie, I must give Crazy its props. These two films are well-done musician biopics and are worth your attention.