Saturday, April 16, 2011

Love and Fame: Country Strong

Just about the easiest thing to do is create melodrama out of country music. It's built right into the songs. Breaking hearts, lost families and wounded pride are about as common to the genre as the soft crying twang of a steel guitar. In Country Strong (Sony, 2011), which was just released on DVD earlier this week, writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) tells a typical story of the price of love and fame in the world of country music, but she distills the melodrama of its tabloid fascination. Feste instead develops an openly relaxed approach to the material which brings us closer to the essence of the music and how its stars cope with the cynicism of the industry.     

Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter.
The movie begins as country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is recovering in a rehab clinic from alcohol abuse which led to her falling off stage during a show in Texas and having a miscarriage. While drying out, she is being cared for by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a country singer who wants no part of stardom. But he loves both her and her music, which leads to them carrying on an affair. Her husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw), meanwhile wants her out of rehab so that she can pick up her career. So he books her into a three-show tour which includes an opening act featuring both Beau and a young, aspiring singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour not only unravels Kelly's own demons (including the dissolution of her pained marriage), but also the end of her affair with Beau who becomes romantically drawn to Chiles, the talented ingĂ©nue who hasn't yet been corrupted by the industry.

While Country Strong borrows bits and pieces of plotting from IntermezzoAll About Eve and Coal Miner's Daughter, Shana Feste treats the plot more as stitching. She allows the actors room to intuitively play into each others' rhythms the way musicians often do while improvising on a song. Besides having a good strong country voice, Gwyneth Paltrow has been showing some toughness in recent performances (especially her remarkably brittle turn in James Gray's unappreciated Two Lovers). Drawing a little on both the fragile careers of Mindy McCready and Brittany Spears, Paltrow clings to her songs as if they were lifeboats. Knowing that she's losing Beau (and has lost the blinding admiration of her manager husband due to the miscarriage), when she sings "Coming Home," it's clear that home is no longer the refuge it once was. Home doesn't even exist anymore. Paltrow is completely convincing playing an artist whose spirit is in synch with her work even if her life isn't.

Garrett Hedlund as Beau Hutton.
Garrett Hedlund has the amiably relaxed presence - both as an actor and singer - as Kris Kristofferson. He's a remarkably self-effacing performer playing a country artist always in search of the soul of the music. (He even wishes the American national anthem was Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried.") Country singer and actor Tim McGraw, who played Hedlund's abusive father in the film version of Friday Night Lights (2004), gives a beautifully unadorned performance. James Cantor is a man who is not only losing his wife, but also his image of who he thought she was. McGraw doesn't need to sing in Country Strong because his performance plays like a sombre ballad of regret and loss.

Leighton Meester as Chiles.
Leighton Meester, who has some of the ornate beauty of Ronee Blakley combined with the spry spunk of Winona Ryder, provides some unexpected dimensions to Chiles' ambitions. Unlike the young careerist in All About Eve, Chiles has a complete lack of guile. Her innocence is fueled mostly by a need to escape the life she came from into a career that can transform her. Both Beau and Kelly also come to see her not so much as a rival, or a naive talent to be corrupted, but as a woman who could have both a great commercial career and a stable life. If Beau can't live with the fickle fortunes of the business (and Kelly was being destroyed by it), Chiles can emerge possibly unscathed. Part of the charm of Country Strong is that it doesn't suggest that because you want to be a commercial artist, it automatically means that you've lost your street cred.

When Country Strong was released theatrically last January (usually the kiss of death for most movies), it drew a number of hostile reviews. While the plot does nothing new, the music and performances are both engaging and touching. So I was surprised by the hostility of the response. Perhaps because Shana Feste thoughtfully examines an ambivalence in the country music world between a love of your art and the fame that can taint it, it perhaps confused some writers who spent more time slamming the melodramatic tropes of the plot. 

Tim McGraw as James Cantor.
For one thing, the ending, in particular, is a big mistake. Obviously test market screenings demanded something more upbeat than the story demanded. But, fortunately, the original deleted ending (which makes much more dramatic sense to the story) is featured as an extra on the disc.

In dramatic terms, Country Strong is mostly carried along by the casual rhythms of its songs just as Jerry Schatzberg's  Honeysuckle Rose (1980) was with Willie Nelson's tunes. In fact, in Country Strong, along with Willie Nelson, you can feel the abiding spirit of Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Carrie Underwood. At its best, Country Strong not only pays homage to their legacies, it also tries to fulfill them.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) this Tuesday at the Revue Cinema in Toronto at 7pm. His five-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, begins at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, April 27th from 1pm-3pm.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. I skipped "Country Strong" after the bad reviews, but I generally like the struggling country artist movies. After reading your review, I might give it a try now. . .