Review: “Country Strong”

Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund in 'Country Strong'

“Country Strong” is a good movie.

It’s also  two-thirds of a great movie.

First, the good. The music is incredible. It’s always a challenge making a movie about a fictional great artist, because it has to be believable. If you’re making a movie about a great writer, but the writing in the movie is crap, the movie falls apart. The audience isn’t going to buy you’re movie about a great painter if they think they could paint just as well. If a movie says something is a hit song, it has to sound like it could be a hit song in real life.

“Country Strong” succeeds quite well in that respect, having drafted the best and brightest songwriters to create songs that, had they not been used in the movie, might even have been more successful in the hands of the right artist. At the beginning of the movie, two characters start riffing an idea for a song, and you hope that the finished version will re-appear later.

The soundtrackis strong enough to be a good country compilation album, with no weak links. In fact, for those wanting to buy the music,  I would recommend the download-only “More Music” companion album,with the actual movie tracks, over the official soundtrack album, which has polished and produced re-recordings of the songs by major acts.

(Two personal notes — For being someone with no taste for country music just three years or so, it amused me that I watched the credits for the songwriters, and recognized more of the names than Heather, who was one of the people that inspired my interest. Second, I am more than a little jealous of Garrett Hedlund, who last month got to play in the Tron universe and this month is singing a Lori McKenna-penned song on screen. I would hope for some your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate moment where he’s eventually singing a Lori McKenna song in a Tron movie, but my head threatens to explode when I try to imagine that combination actually working.)

The McKenna-penned track, “Chances Are,”is perhaps less distinctively Lori than some of the other songs she’s written for others but no less solid; with her personality a bit sublimated to the personality of the film.

“Country Strong” presents itself as a vignette on the struggle between love and fame; postulating that you can’t have both. (Which makes the casting of Tim McGraw somewhat ironic — he and Faith Hill are very much the counter argument to the film’s hypothesis.) It also, perhaps even more interestingly, explores the similarly conflicted relationship between fame and artistic integrity.

It’s the story of country star Kelly Canter, played quite convincingly by Gwyneth Paltrow, and her husband-manager James Canter, played convincingly by country star Tim McGraw, with both actors disappearing into their roles. When we first see Kelly, she is in residential rehab for drug abuse; her husband comes to take her out early to mount a three-date comeback tour.

Joining them for the shows are up-and-comers Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Both are types — Beau is a fictional Lance Miller, Chiles starts out as a screen version of Taylor Swift. If you said “who?” to the Lance Miller reference, that’s the point — Beau is the artist who, despite his talent, is too “real country” to make it to fame in today’s world of country pop. (Appropriately enough, Miller has a songwriting credit for the film.) Chiles is the beauty-queen ingenue singing radio-friendly bubble-gum country for teenage girls. Hedlund and Meester also turn in strong performances, their characters at times overshadowing the leads.

But that’s the flaw of “Country Strong” — it can’t decide which of these stories it really wants to tell, and it isn’t willing to commit to being a true ensemble anthology. The movie is good; a version of the movie half-and-hour longer could have been Oscar-quality. As it is, the film goes beyond the idea of “show, don’t tell” and barely even shows. We see what the characters do, but all too often, we don’t fully understand why. Is Kelly in a struggle to fight for her dreams against her demons, or is she so far gone that she randomly has good days and bad? Is James selfishly trying to sell his wife for his own gain, or is he really trying to do what he thinks she needs? How much is Chiles evolving as a character, and how much is she just responding to where she is?

Ironically, a version of “Country Strong” that was longer and more raw could have explored these issues better and been a brilliant film, but perhaps less postured as a hopeful commercially successful — the movie itself is ultimately a victim of the struggle it addresses, between artistic integrity and fame.

None of that changes the fact that, despite what the movie could have been, it does what it chose to do quite well — with great music, brilliant acting and a compelling story arc.

With the character exploration the movie didn’t get into, it’s essentially a lighter fictional version of “Walk The Line,” but with enough in common that there many people who enjoyed that movie will like this one.

Chances Are.

Heather wrote her own review of the movie on her blog yesterday.