Country Strong Review

poster from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

No, I did not go see The Green Hornet. I know it was the biggest movie releasing this week. I know it looked cool. It was my original plan to see it this week but if you’ve been following along you’ll know that my plans got thrown off when it took our theater an extra week to get Country Strong. So this week I had a choice: superhero action vs country music. You’d think it was a no brainer, right? It was, but not in the way I would’ve thought if you’d asked me before I saw the Country Strong trailer. It has a story that goes like this:

A young singer-songwriter meets a country music superstar while she’s in rehab and gets invited to open for her on her comeback tour where he witnesses first hand the price of fame.

Add in the fact that it stars Garrett Hedlund and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom are on the list, and I had my winner. So was Country Strong worth the wait, worth throwing off my whole schedule? It must have done something right, because even though I hate country music, I love this movie.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you may have gotten the impression that Country Strong was about Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Kelly Canter, and her recovery from alcoholism and relaunch onto the country music circuit. But this is actually Beau Hutton’s story in the same way that Terminator Salvation was actually Marcus Wright’s story, not John Connor’s. Although Kelly is certainly the central figure in the story, the movie begins and ends with Beau (Garrett Hedlund). It’s his choices that drive the plot.

Beau and his junky truck from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

Starting with: do I want to stay here with my rust bucket truck or do I want to be famous?

In the beginning, Beau is an orderly at a rehab facility. He writes his own songs and plays them in the local honkey tonk and Kelly, a resident in the facility, mentors him. They have a weird sort of affair going, where he supports her sobriety and she supports his career.

Kelly and Beau from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

This is above and beyond the sort of service YOU would get in rehab, but only because you’re not famous.

They need each other, so when Kelly’s husband/manager James (Tim McGraw) comes to get her out early for a last-ditch encore tour, Kelly convinces him to bring Beau along to open for her. The catch is that Beau will also have to put up with James’ choice of opener: the painfully naive pop-country singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). And I do mean painfully naïve. I cringed several times at her embarrassing gaffes. But sometimes they’re funny.

Chiles at the press conference from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

REPORTER: “Who’s your hero?”
CHILES: “Kelly Canter and Jesus Christ.”

Beau and Chiles have a weird relationship too, because while Beau’s a country music snob who can’t stand her bubbly beauty queen-ness, he thinks she’s kind of cute, and while Chiles resents him for his lack of respect and thinks he’s a jerk for making fun of her, she also desperately craves his approval. Despite their obvious antagonism they look and sound great on stage, so James throws them together, even making them sing a duet.

Chiles and Beau sing a duet from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

I think you can tell where all this is leading.

So they all go on tour together and the lines of their relationships get all tangled up in a rat’s nest of connections. Beau looks up to Kelly. Kelly uses Beau to get the support that she really wants from her aloof husband James. James is disappointed in the fact that Kelly lost her toughness and looks to Chiles to pick up the mantle. Chiles wants to prove herself to James but she also desperately wants to get under Kelly’s wing so she can have a successful career. But Kelly sees Chiles as a threat, as her replacement, and is worried about losing Beau and James to her.

Kelly and Chiles from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

Pfshaw. Like Gwyneth Paltrow would really ever lose out to anyone else.

Meanwhile Kelly’s also got her own private demons to battle, namely her alcohol addiction, which she’s not fully rehabbed from, and the fact that some of her fans have turned against her since she had her public meltdown. Too bad the public couldn’t see her trying to look after the baby bird she found, or making up songs off the top of her head for sick little boys.

Kelly sings for a sick boy from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

She really is an extraordinary songwriter.

There’s so much going on emotionally that you’d expect the movie to degenerate into a big mess, but it’s easy to follow all the way through. All of the relationships get enough time to develop, to hit the right points, and wrap up neatly, all without you really noticing what’s going on because you’re too caught up in waiting to see what happens next. This tour is Kelly’s last chance to wrestle her career out of the toilet. Can she pull it off or will she crash and burn and be run over by the next newer, more popular act? Writer/director Shana Feste deserves a lot of credit for keeping the story tight and on track.

Kelly and Beau on the train from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

Here they are, right on track. Hur hur. (Get it? ‘Cause they’re on a train?)

With nearly the entire plot being based around a country music concert tour and nearly all of the central characters being country music singers, you would expect there to be a lot of singing in this movie. And there is, which is why I’m so glad they actually took the time to find people who could really sing AND act. The obvious way to go would have been to cast real country singers in the lead roles, but there’s so much drama in the movie that doing so would have been a disaster. They could never have carried it.

Kelly and James dancing from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

You have to be a special kind of country singer to go toe to toe with Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s got an Oscar.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Leighton Meester, and Garrett Hedlund all have great singing voices and have songs on the soundtrack, but their voices are only part of it, because they use their acting skills to pour all of themselves into the songs, which is why I enjoyed them even though they were in a genre that I hate. Gwyneth Paltrow has this ‘I am awesome but in so much pain’ thing going on.

Kelly Canter from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

It’s even odds as to whether I’ll get all weepy on stage or not.

Leighton Meester is a cute, bouncy, bubble gum kid.

Chiles singing from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

Lookit me, ma, I’m goin’ to prom!

And Garrett Hedlund’s got this deep-voiced ‘let’s have some blue-collar fun’ attitude.

Beau singing from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

Try not to smile when he does. I dare you. ‘Cause it’s hard.

Surprisingly, Tim McGraw, the only actual country singer in the cast, does no country singing, since he’s only Kelly’s manager. But he does do a lot of acting, and I have to hand it to him: he’s good. He’s as good at acting as the actors are at singing, which is surprising given how often the singer-to-actor transition works out (i.e. almost never).

Beau and James from the Screen Gems film Country Strong

He can even pull off the outfits, which make him look like a clean-cut metrosexual librarian.

The ending of Country Strong may surprise some people, but it didn’t surprise me, mostly because I have writerly superpowers that enable me to stay one step ahead of the plot. But though you may be surprised, I think you’ll see that the ending was logical – it fit in with the plot and the characterization. It is a little sad, which the tone of the movie should have prepared you for, but it’s also hopeful. All in all I really enjoyed this movie and I look forward to seeing it again, and I think you will too, regardless of whether you actually like country music or not.

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