‘Country Strong’ Is Worth It for the Music Alone

There has been some praise and a bit of backlash for Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as an alcoholic country music star called Kelly Canter in Country Strong. Likewise, Grammy Award-winning singer Tim McGraw has gotten both a positive reception and some derision for his part as her husband and manager. They both make obvious efforts in their roles as they try to portray people who are both good and bad. However, therein lies one of Country Strong‘s problems as a film.

Throughout the story we are given information and shown scenes of this couple that are alternately intended to garner the audience’s pity or incite its hatred. The loss of an unborn child, episodes of drunkenness, anger and violence, blatant manipulation of each other and all those around them, infidelity, etc.

Is McGraw’s James a broken-hearted but dutiful husband trying to save his wife’s career, or a scheming Svengali of a money-grubbing manager trying to save his own? Is Paltrow’s Kelly a tragic heroine whose life has spiraled out of control despite her attempts to save herself, or is she an immoral women being propped up, yet again, in anticipation of a deserved final fall? Not that characters cannot be complex, incorporating any and all of these traits at once, but it’s as if the filmmakers simply couldn’t decide how to paint these two people, and so, in a failed attempt at complexity, they just present a mess of a melodramatic morality play.

However, Country Strong is not all murky melodrama. Once you get past the big names, the real relationship to watch is the one between Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, Tron Legacy) plays and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl). Hutton is a truly talented singer/songwriter who doesn’t want money or fame. He only cares about playing music for people. And Kelly Canter. Stanton is the young, green, former beauty queen who is on the eve of her own successful country music career.

The two are brought along on Kelly Canter’s three-city comeback tour of Texas. Beau, under the pretense of being her sponsor, though he is her current lover, and Chiles as if she were Kelly’s protege, although James clearly has her in his sights, if not yet his bed. Chiles looks up to Beau and over the course of the film, their verbal sparring develops into a sweet, authentic love affair.

It seems the most authentic part of the film, in fact. For example, Dallas, Austin and Houston are mere hours apart, yet this tour goes on and on. The scenery passing by Kelly’s tour bus and Beau’s band’s van windows is quite beautiful in a classically cinematic sense, and it seems unending (though it’s not really Texas) as these characters’ eyes scan the horizon. Really, how long is this tour? Are they driving back to Nashville every night?

Another thing that rings inauthentic is the way Kelly’s alcoholism is portrayed. It is treated like it’s a costume Paltrow can throw on and off at will. Kelly relapses spectacularly a couple of times, yet when it suits the script, she’s just suddenly recovered. Remember that this three-city trek can’t possibly be taking much more than a week in its entirety. Kelly’s disease plays like a stock plot point picked out of a Stetson hat (One imagines a writer thinking, “I’m a troubled country singer who likes Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings … I should be an alcoholic!”). It’s a bit insulting.

Still, the music performances are so sharp and polished that they are reason enough to watch Country Strong. If only they made up more of the movie, or at least lasted a little longer. Paltrow is gorgeous in her performance scenes, and Hedlund and Meester’s performances are excellent. The film boasts some really great songs by artists and songwriters like Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Chris Young, Hank Williams, Jr., Trace Adkins and Hayes Carll. DVD bonus materials include the alternate original ending, music videos with Sara Evans and Paltrow, deleted scenes and a full performance of Shake that Thing by Paltrow.

RATING 6 / 10