DIR/WRI: Shana Feste • PRO: Tobey Maguire, Jenno Topping • DOP: John Bailey • ED: Carol Littleton, Conor O’Neill • DES: David J. Bomba • Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leighton Meester
Country & Western music lends itself to clichés, and movies about Country & Western music suffer from the same triteness and predictability. Even when based on ‘truth’, as with Walk the Line, they cannot quite escape the grips of melodrama and over-emotionalism. Country Strong is no different – every tear-inducing trick in the country-book is hauled out and dusted off. There is something strangely compelling, though, about this genre of music and way of life – it echoes a dying past filled with ballads, Stetsons and desert winds. Hackneyed and elementally corny it might be, but rough-diamond cowboys and resilient country women resurface again and again in America’s stories. In this case, it is the tale of a broken country star, intent on redemption – a story as old as the chords of in one of the many songs.
It’s rumoured that the writer/director Shana Feste based the lead character, Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), on Britney Spears – building on the idea of a girl who has become a woman without ever learning what it is to be an adult. Certainly comparisons can be easily made, and it is in Kelly’s weaknesses that the story has its greatest moments of clarity and depth. We begin with cowboy singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) playing in some battered honky-tonk – from which he goes back to his day job in a rehab centre. Clearly smitten with the incumbent star, Kelly, they sing together before her husband James (Tim McGraw) arrives to check her out of rehab a month early, in order to begin a three-city redemption tour. Kelly is clearly not ready for her exit, and a loved-up Beau advises against it, posing as her sponsor. James is adamant, assuring Kelly that he has found a perfect back-up singer in the guise of beauty-queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), though he also concedes to Kelly’s request that Beau be brought along. (Yes, these names are all real.) Beau despises Chiles’ ‘country-barbie’ style, as he writes his own songs and music – putting heart and feeling into every one. Her innocence and foolishness begins to wear him down, however, especially in the shadow of Kelly’s continued alcohol and personal abuse on tour.
Paltrow has been working towards recognition as a songstress for quite a while, her present work on the horrific High-School-Musical-for-adults show Glee being a case in point. Country Strong seems be another valiant attempt to showcase these abilities, but what the film really provides is the reason why she is on our screens in the first place. Not for her voice, but for her considerable prowess as an actor – an aspect of Mrs. Coldplay that might have been recently overlooked. Playing a fractured ex-country star, fresh out of rehab and dealing with demon upon demon, she excels in both the occasional comedy and persistent drama of the role, giving some direction in an otherwise cliché-ridden flick.
With multiple tales of love and loss, and redemption as well as sorrow in every bittersweet set-up, this is storytelling at its simplest. Injections of humour aside, it runs a course obvious from the get-go, and there are no surprises in script to keep you guessing. What is nice about the movie, though, and what holds it together, is the exposition given to the central four characters; there are no demons or saints in the basket, and each one is given depth and emotion. In the end, they are the only tangible gratification in an otherwise thoroughly guilty pleasure: melodrama at its best, but then the ‘best’ of melodrama is rarely all that good.
IFCO website for details)
Country Strong is released on 125th March 2011