Following on the heels of Crazy Heart, Country Strong attempts to portray the same crash-and-burn lifestyle of a country musician, but revolving around a woman instead of a man. Though if you place your trust in advertising then Country Strong involves an aging country superstar that has to contend with a young upstart. Those expecting this storyline might be surprised that the superstar is a recovering alcoholic.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a six-time Grammy Award country starlet who, because of putting down the guitar and picking up the bottle, finds herself in a rehab facility for alcohol and drug dependency. Such a downward spiral stemmed from a Dallas performance that saw her performing while five months pregnant (mistake) and drunk at the time (bigger mistake). She would fall off the stage and suffer a miscarriage.
By this description you would expect that Kelly Canter would be the heart of the story, with her fall and subsequent rise, like a phoenix from the ashes. You would be wrong. The real focus is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an aspiring singer who has become bedfellows with Kelly at the rehab facility where he works. Kelly may be a superstar that has as many platinum albums as she has Grammys, but Beau desires no riches or acclaim. He’s what you’d call a purist; someone who is content on writing lyrics while enjoying a beer and performing in small bars for smaller crowds. Performing in stadiums in front of thousands is not his dream, unlike Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen who has the voice but has a tendency to freeze when performing in a room of people.
Beau and Chiles become a package deal for James Canter (Tim McGraw), Kelly’s manager husband, who is looking for opening acts for her comeback tour. Beau would act as Kelly’s sponsor, making sure she doesn’t relapse during the tour’s three-city trial run. Chiles, on the other hand, is being groomed to be the next Carrie Underwood. Along the way there are romantic complications by Beau and Chiles as well as Kelly’s instability to make it through an entire set.
Country Strong gets off to a promising start with Kelly and Beau at the clinic, but begins to go to Predictibleville (with the Road Most Traveled as its main street) once manager James makes his appearance as the domineering husband pulling his entertainer wife out of the facility prior to her rehab is up and get her on the comeback trail. The problem is that writer-director Shana Feste (The Greatest) respects her characters too much to make an engrossing drama. So she takes shortcuts in telling her story. Kelly’s alcoholism is more of a means to drive the plot than is an actual disease. And her miscarriage, which is only subtly revealed, should be integral to the story, leaving Kelly more emotionally stunted. It’s either clever acting on Paltrow’s part or Feste relying on archetype, sensing that alcoholism isn’t debilitating enough.
Feste does do one thing to curry favor with. The interweaving of Kelly’s story and Beau’s story balances tragedy with something uplifting. Considering the advertisements make this a showcase role for Gwyneth Paltrow, most will see Country Strong as a tragedy. But someone who avoided trailers or TV spots may walk away feeling moved by Beau and his willingness make a life for himself free from outside influences.
When we last heard Paltrow singing on screen she was accompanied by Huey Lewis in Duets. That was a decade ago. In Country Strong she proves adequate belting out a country tune, but some may be more impressed with Garrett Hedlund. The actor who jumped into the role right after finishing Tron: Legacy looks like he could have a second career if there ever comes a day when his agent won’t return his phone calls.
Country Strong aspires to be mentioned in the same breath as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Tender Mercies and the most recent Crazy Heart, but because writer-director Shana Feste favored convenience above all else, the film doesn’t quite reach those same heights. Had it not been mismarketed from the get-go the film may have had greater reach outside of country music circles. As it is, Country Strong remains a lower-rung country music drama with some nice tunes and good performances by Paltrow and Hedlund.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!