Most songs in films are, for better or worse, aural parsley, incidental to the real meat of a movie.
T Bone Burnett the man behind the soundtracks for Walk the Line, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems to have made it his mission to turn music into a more substantial cinematic side dish, if not an entrée, and in the dusky vérité drama Crazy Heart, he finds a fitting muse. As Bad Blake, a dissolute Merle Haggard/Kris Kristofferson country-outlaw type, Jeff Bridges croons of wrong turns and ruin in a whiskeyed road-warrior warble; he's a man who's used up his second, third, and fourth chances.
Bridges and his onscreen protégé, Colin Farrell, give admirable heft (yes, they're really singing) to originals penned by Burnett and a crew of veteran sidemen particularly the honky-tonking ''Fallin' & Flyin''' and jaunty pedal-steel rambler ''Gone, Gone, Gone'' even if the album's inclusion of old songs from real-life legends like Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings makes them seem a bit like callow movie-star interlopers in comparison. But relative newcomer Ryan Bingham is the soundtrack's real scene-stealer: The 28-year-old troubadour's aching, evocative ''The Weary Kind'' is the stuff Oscar-night upsets are made of.
Alas, one of the best songs from the much-lauded George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air won't even be eligible for an Academy Award: Brooklyn soulstress Sharon Jones' deeply funky recast of Woody Guthrie's campfire anthem ''This Land Is Your Land'' already appeared on her 2005 album, Naturally. Still, Chicago singer-songwriter Sad Brad Smith deserves his own shot; his delicate, ruminative ''Help Yourself'' cleaves beautifully to dreamy instrumentals and well-culled older tracks from Elliott Smith and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
For all its leggy, spangly star power, Nine struggles to find similar traction. Divorced from the film's visual razzle-dazzle, Daniel Day-Lewis sounds physically pained, Nicole Kidman strains to maintain a too-low key, and Kate Hudson squeaks through a chaotic mambo Italiano on attitude alone. Penélope Cruz purrs gamely, but only Fergie (on the growling, triumphant ''Be Italian'') and Judi Dench (fête en francais ''Folies Bergère'') have the chops to make Broadway babies put down their original cast recordings. Some actors, it seems, should keep their (wildly lucrative) day jobs. Crazy Heart: B+ Up in the Air: B Nine: C–
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