Director: Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Note to Taylor Swift: this film is about how not to run a country-music career. We have an alcoholic country singer who must keep it together for another long tour. Along for the ride is her manipulative manager, also doubling as her husband, and two young supporting acts biding their time until they command the spotlight. However, between zealous fans and a growing tabloid frenzy, will the tour bus roll on or will it crash before the final date?
On paper Country Strong resembles one of those fickle 1950s productions starring Elvis Presley, but it is amazing what a dedicated ensemble cast can do to lift otherwise standard material.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays the fallen country star Kelly Canter. Once the toast of Nashville, Kelly’s career unceremoniously crashes after she suffers a drink-induced miscarriage before a Texas show. Fresh from rehab, she is coaxed into a return tour by husband and manager James (Tim McGraw), but by the time Kelly’s people realise she is not ready, the tour bus is well on its way to her return musical showdown in Texas.
Supporting Kelly on the tour are Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a country crooner more comfortable playing in small honky-tonks, and the up-and-coming starlet Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who is challenging Kelly both for the charts and for James’s affections.
The cast approach their roles with disarming warmth which, unlike the competition between their characters, maintains a delicate balance that allows all the performances to ring true.
Paltrow is one of Hollywood’s most consistent performers. Whether she is playing Iron Man’s sidekick or the difficult role of Sylvia Plath, the Oscar-winner approaches each role with poise. Here she gives one of her most expressive turns and we feel for Kelly as she seeks the stage one more time for redemption, portrayed as a victim neither of her husband nor of country music’s famously hard work-ethic, but of her own ruthless addiction to the limelight.
She is also every bit the diva in her relationship with Chiles, whom she views as an unwelcome pretender to her throne. The scene in which Kelly tersely schools the younger performer on the country music industry is one of the film’s best.
Hedlund delivers a fine performance as Beau. As well as providing Kelly’s supporting act he is also tasked with keeping the star sober. Their relationship is a complicated one in which they see each other as lovers and friends as well as musical partners.
Beau’s underlying mistrust of the music industry could have easily slipped into few hammy monologues, but Hedlund tastefully renders it through weary sighs and simple shrugs. Meanwhile, the country music veteran McGraw continues his fine film work as Kelly’s husband and promoter. His quietly deft performance keeps the audience continually oscillating between hating him as a villain and sympathising with him as a victim of his wife’s excess.
For this, credit goes to the writer and director, Shana Feste. True to the country music ethos of keeping it simple, she approaches the film in a quiet but assured way. Sure, her script falters occasionally, but she knows how to squeeze as much emotion from each encounter before quickly moving on.
In that regard, Country Strong is very much like most good country tunes: it is not the lyrics that tug the heart, but the performance.
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