Director: Shana Festa
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Running time: 117 minutes
Gwyneth Paltrow is back, y’all! The divisive Oscar-winner plays Kelly Canter, an alcoholic country star who’s just getting out of rehab and is about to embark on her first tour since her stay in the clinic. She’s joined on this little tour of big stadiums by her controlling manager/husband James Canter (real-life country singer Tim McGraw), her young lover Beau (Garrett Hedlund, last seen in Tron) and a pretender to the throne, beauty queen-turned-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester).
The first thing that strikes is how beautiful Paltrow’s singing voice is – soft and graceful. The second is how this is filled with familiar tropes (even clichés) of country singers’ lives – the substance abuse that Hank Williams and Johnny Cash suffered, the channelling of suffering into her music as Loretta Lyne and Patsy Cline did, and a similar life-story (and appearance) to the country singer in The Simpsons, Lurleen Lumpkin.
For better or worse, this is a deeply old-fashioned melodrama. It benefits from sincerity in its tone, script and performances, but suffers from some oversimplification. In fact, you could easily picture it being released in the 60s without many changes made. It seems to take place in a timeless void – without much mention of mobile phones or the internet – the route to music stardom in this (as it used to be) seems to be song-writing and gigging, as opposed to MySpace and media manipulation.
Thankfully the most important aspects work – the acting is strong across the board. Paltrow’s performance is fine – passionate and credible – but her character is (ironically) the least interesting in the piece. She’s terribly self-destructive and self-involved, and many of the scenes without her are highlights. Meester and Hedlund are both effective as the young pretenders who initially have nothing in common (he’s like Steve Earle, she’s like Miley Cyrus) but who eventually find common ground.
Country Strong is overwrought at times, and is definitely not for all tastes, but many will appreciate it for what it is – a sincere and affecting old-fashioned melodrama.