COUNTRY STRONG review by Gary ‘Red Neck Mother’ Murray

COUNTRY STRONG review by Gary ‘Red Neck Mother’ Murray

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Movies about the music industry have been a part of the cinematic landscape since The Jazz Singer brought in the first ‘talkie’. Not musicals, but films about the music industry have weaved into the fabric of our celluloid history. While Big Band, Rock & Roll, and Opera have long been a part of this tradition, Country and Western has been more of an ignored step-child. The films were treated more as ‘hillbilly flicks’ for the rural south. With Country Strong, the makers try to put a more respectful tinge to the process.

The story is of Kelly Carter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a country music legend who has hit a rough patch. When our little drama opens, she is in a rehab facility fighting the demons of drugs and alcohol. It is there where she has met Beau (Garrett Hedlund), an up-and-coming pure country boy who hates the way country music has been made into bubblegum pop. He is a purist and loves just about everything the old guard of Kelly and her ilk have done. Beau also flashes those puppy-dog love eyes whenever he’s around her.

But Kelly is married to James (Tim McGraw) who is also her manager. He is the one who takes her out of rehab early to get her back on the road. It seems that there was an incident in Dallas where Kelly both lost her way and lost her unborn child. He wants to instantly go back on tour in Texas, back to Dallas just to prove Kelly’s critics wrong. She wants Beau and his band to be the opening act.

In order to get on the bill, Beau has to pass the audition. James is also at the honky-tonk showcase to see Chiles (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen who has the fire in her eye to get ahead. She is another of those pop princesses of country music that Beau hates. When she struggles on stage, Beau laughs at her but then jumps up in front of the band to help her get over her nervousness. It shows that he is deep down a good guy and that there may be something more between the two of them.

The crux of the film’s story is of Kelly’s trip to Houston and Austin before her big come-back gig in Big D. Along the way we see the relationship between Kelly and Beau bloom as she struggles to find her stage legs and not fall back into the old ways of getting high. He is just as much her sponsor as her paramour. We also see Chiles and Beau finding common ground both on and off the stage. Lastly, something may be going on with James and Chiles. We have all the elements of high country soap with Country Strong.

Gwyneth Paltrow overplays her character here and there but still comes across as a winnable heroine. There is this achieving quality of the fragile little bird (a blatant metaphor used in the film) who just needs someone strong to help her fly again.

The most surprising performance comes from Garrett Hedlund. Where he was just a walking stiff in Tron: Legacy, Garrett finds a true character to flesh out in Country Strong. The audience cheers for him even when he makes some very bad choices. He’s head-strong and, in the end, right about what is true country.

In a shock, Tim McGraw does not sing in the movie. The country legend has to rely on his acting skills and does more than a passable job going toe to toe with Gwyneth. He is the villain in the play, but never a bad guy. He just has a different mindset, thinking more about money than people. His eventual downfall is fair.

Leighton Meester is almost an unknown but stakes out a giant career pole here. Her vapid little pop princess is not some cut-out character but a fully formed individual. She finds both humor and vulnerability in the role. This is the kind of a performance that launches a giant movie career.

Movies about country music never end on a happy note and Country Strong fills that bill. Call it a melodrama with a twang. Writer/director Shana Feste delivers an honest if not over-the-top film. It may not be for all tastes, but it entertains from start to finish. She gets some solid performances and captures the feel of both being on tour and being around artists. There are many strong songs in the frames of the film which should keep the audience toe-tapping… even on the way out.

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