One entry in the Oscars’ foreign-language category this year, “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” actually has significant chunks in English … but only because its extensive score consists entirely of Americana-style music standards faithfully sung by the principal characters.
Who’d have guessed that the second great bluegrass movie ever released would come from Belgium?
Maybe the question should be: “O Brother,” what hast thou begat?
“‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ conquered the world for bluegrass music,” acknowledged the star and co-writer of “Broken Circle,” Johan Heldenbergh, after a Wrap awards-series screening Monday night at the Landmark. He added that he’d “be very honored” to cross paths with T Bone Burnett, the earlier movie’s music producer, as Burnett touts “Inside Llewyn Davis” on the awards circuit this season, “because he was one of the reasons why I started loving bluegrass.”
But although “Broken Circle Breakdown” even borrows a key song from “O Brother,” it’s unlikely anyone will ever program the two films together on a revival-house double bill. In the new movie, Heldenbergh really does portray “a man of constant sorrow.” His character is an American music-loving musician whose seemingly idyllic marriage goes downhill after their daughter contracts cancer. A lot of narrative time-jumping contrasts the leads’ present-day anguish and arguments with the happier and sexier times when they first fell in love (and lust) to the tune of Bill Monroe.
The answer to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is a rueful “no,” and if a sadder movie has ever been made, it’s possible no one has survived to tell the tale.
“It was emotionally draining to make,” director Felix Von Groeningen told Sharon Waxman, editor of The Wrap, at the packed Landmark screening. “The first day of shooting, first shot, first take was (the two lead characters) in the hospital, and I started crying during the take, and it didn’t stop for the next two months. Every day I was crying behind my monitor. I’ve been in this emotion for a year and a half, and during the shooting it was 24/7 … But it was what this movie wanted and needed, and I’m not sorry about it.”
“We were like one big family, and everybody was into the story,” added Heldenburgh. “When the boom operator was crying during the scene — and these guys are macho guys! — you just know that you’re all on the same level and going for the same thing.”
For a story in a musical milieu that deals with death and grief, Heldenburgh (who originated it as a stage play) felt that bluegrass was the only genre that was up to the task, with its frank treatment of both joy and despair.
“I just thought that I had to invent the saddest possible story possible on a small scale,” said the actor/writer with a slight smile. “And by listening to the country and bluegrass music, the story just came to me. I couldn’t imagine doing it with another kind of music, because it had to be that honest and full of integrity … and have that devotion to a higher being.”
It’s no small irony that much of the music is religious, whereas Heldenburgh’s character — like the actor himself — is atheist.
“I wanted to write something about religion, and as something the opposite (of atheism), I chose bluegrass … When you hear the white gospel stuff we sing, it’s beautiful. The devotion, I’m very jealous about.”
The music isn’t all old-timey: The crucial number in the film, “If I Needed You,” is a contemporary classic by the late Townes Van Zandt, whom Heldenburgh calls “my hero and the best singer/songwriter ever.” The song is the soundtrack to a riveting example of how a stage performance scene can be staged for character development, as the audience wonders whether the duet between Heldenburgh and his movie wife, Veerle Baetens, will provide their moment of reconciliation or not. It’s a musical number and an emotional suspense scene.
Waxman and most of the audience were in disbelief when Heldenburgh revealed his lack of musical background.
“I couldn’t play music” before he started in on the play, he said. “In 2007, my banjo arrived. Because we were a poor theater company, we didn’t have money for five musicians, so I had to be one myself. Then I started learning the banjo and guitar, and it was the biggest present I gave myself in life.”
And he and Baetans — also an actress who previously was not a singer — proved their chops by doing a couple of impromptu duets for the crowd (see video).
Here’s where “Broken Circle” and “O Brother” converge to have something in common again: That bluegrass soundtrack sold 8 million copies and became the unlikeliest smash of the 21st century so far. On a somewhat more localized scale, “Broken Circle” has been a huge musical breakout itself.
“The CD is the best-selling album in Belgium in the last 10 years,” said Heldenburgh. “It’s triple-platinum. It’s incredible.”
The actor and his co-star, Baetans, have even toured behind it, to mostly sold-out houses … and they have another 35 gigs booked for next year, “in big venues.”
“We’re actors, mainly, and our agendas don’t always allow us to tour a lot,” he said, but the demand is clearly there. Heldenburgh said that if he had any nervousness about making the leap from leading man to touring singer, it helps that “we’re surrounded by very good musicians, so we have that protection. We are Europeans, and we will never be from North Carolina or Tennessee, so we don’t kid ourselves about that. But we have the best of Belgium’s (American-roots-style musicians) with us when we do a concert, and Veerle sings like an angel, and I talk a lot–which is mainly what I do best in life.”