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.

The Roar of a Crowd on a Friday Night

OK, you know, initially this was going to be another “Hey, it’s weird I like country music now” post. But since I’ve liked country for most of the time I’ve written this blog, and have been listening to it regularly since before I started “Stories,” that’s really probably not that weird to a lot of my readers. Heck, how many of you are left out there that even knew me back then? I should figure out how to do a poll to figure that out.

It is still weird to me, though. Back in August I wrote a post about spiritual implications of Lady Antebellum’s “I Run To You”, and embedded the official video from YouTube. Cool to be able to come back now and do a post with video of them doing the song that I shot on my iPhone. At that point in time, I’d been to a country concert, with Sugarland (awesome) and Billy Currington (totally not my thing at the time, though I now really like “People Are Crazy”). Since then, I’ve seen Ralph Stanley and Sammy Kershaw and Trace Adkins and Sara Evans and Heidi Newfield and probably a few others I’m forgetting, and I’m going to the Opry next week.

Friday, I saw Lady Antebellum and Tim McGraw.

When my friend pitched the concert tour me, I think it was pitched as a Lady A concert; I’m not sure I even knew McGraw was also playing when I committed to go. And that was fine, I was going to see Lady Antebellum; I really didn’t have much interest in Tim McGraw.

I enjoyed their single “I Run To You” greatly; enough that when I saw Best Buy had the CD on sale for like $8 last year I figured it was worth picking up. Their second CD, I bought twice in the first week it was out. And there’s some good stuff on there. And, yeah, sure, “Need You Now” and “Love This Pain” were kinda very much where I was when the album came out. But, yeah, to summarize, I loves me some Lady Antebellum.

And they were awesome; I loved their performance, and it was a great opportunity getting to see them live.

Tim McGraw, on the other hand? To be honest, when I heard about the concert, the main thing I knew about Tim McGraw was the Taylor Swift song: “When you think Tim McGraw / Hope you think my favorite song.” I knew I must have heard some of his songs, but none of them had made much of an impression. To prepare for the concert, I put some of his music on my iPod, but never quite got around to taking a serious stab at listening to it. The radio station we were listening to was playing his music before the concert, and that was a pretty good chunk of all the prep I got.

For a bit, I figured he’d peaked before he started. Without even visibly coming on stage, he and the band did Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Since that was a song that I actually know and like, I thought that might well be the high point.

But, I have to say, he did a good job. I was entertained. He was a very good performer, put on a good show, and I recognized more of his songs than I thought I would. I went back afterwards and rated several of them higher so they’d show up in my iTunes more often.

Even so, they highpoint still wasn’t one of his songs. He brought out a couple of songwriters, and said they were going to do one of his favorite songs. They start singing: “‘When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favorite song …’ Oh, sorry, we thought you said one of your favorite subjects.”

I even bought my first concert tour t-shirt. I’ve bought shirts from an independent artist or two that I like at their shows, but I’ve never gotten an official tour shirt before. I really wish I’d gotten one when B.B. King was in town in January, so that regret nudged me into getting a Lady A shirt. I wore it to work Monday and everything.

On the way out, there were people handing out coupons to concert sponsor Outback Steakhouse, and an ad for McGraw, the fragrance by Tim McGraw, and McGraw Southern Blend (which really isn’t that different, but I guess Tim McGraw’s pretty southern already). I’ve been working on my own little song to go with it:

“When you smell Tim McGraw / Hope the smell is not too strong … “