Movie Review: Country Strong (2010)

Friendly movie hints of Nashville _ 7/10

Country StrongKelly Canter: [quoting Waylon Jennings’ lyrics]
“If you see me getting smaller, I’m leaving, don’t be grieving, just gotta get away from here. If you see me getting smaller, don’t worry, and no hurry, I’ve got the right to disappear.”

This was just a likable little movie from the gitgo. Very simple, the above four characters are really the only ones with important lines. Singer Tim McGraw is frankly out of his league in Actorville, but still carries on bravely and makes whatever plot there is connect in a convincing way. As for that plot, it’s about the country superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose fortunes have waned for various reasons and who is hanging on for a big comeback orchestrated by her manager husband James (Tim McGraw). She loves her husband, who has been there for her ‘despite all the crap,’ (mostly from her) but she is also fond of a semi-renegade, non-or-at-least-less materialistic new singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund).

Written by Shana Feste
Directed by Shana Feste

Gwyneth Paltrow … Kelly Canter
Tim McGraw … James Canter
Garrett Hedlund … Beau Hutton
Leighton Meester … Chiles Stanton

Beau is a real talent, who has an aptitude for songwriting, but mainly attracts the unadorned ‘folk country’ fans, say, the sort who would happily frequent a Townes Van Zandt performance at an unairconditioned Houston coffee shop. [Well, not quite.] We first pick up on Beau doing a rousing number at an off-Nashville venue; the fans are enthusiastic. We also glimpse there the innocent, kind-hearted qualities he displays while subtly aiding a fellow musician Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) on the stage. She’s a rookie with confidence issues, and though he feigns disdain of her glittery ways, she also has a voice and an honesty that appeal to him.

This encounter between Beau and Chiles, believe it or not, makes quite an impression: most of us take for granted the abilities of a musician or a singer, in particular. We seldom recognize the internal energy it requires to project oneself in concert out to hundreds, much more, thousands, of fans. This inner strength or confidence makes or breaks a career, and the young actress provides a clinic, with Hedlund’s help and that of writer/director Feste, on that very point.

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The dance-hall scene fades to Beau working on lyrics on the bed of soon-to-be-touring Kelly Canter. That’s on the bed, not in it. They’ve known each other for a few years, and it’s unclear whether their mutual interest goes beyond music and genuine friendship. Their creative energy flows like a river between them as they strum and sing like dueling poets; if they are not in love, they’re in something quite close to it. Paltrow carries all her scenes with an uncanny authenticity [my first Hollywood impression of Ms. Paltrow came from her role in Shakespeare in Love (1998) for which she won the Oscar(!)]. I’m completely convinced of her Kelly Canter… all the nuances are present, conveying a fading glory that is still nonetheless quite glorious. As a singer, Paltrow is more than up to the job.

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The sad thing is that Kelly’s fans (and Country Strong‘s audiences) do not get to see or hear Ms. Canter on stage very much. Depression and alcohol have etched themselves rather deeply into Kelly’s psyche. She’s become a walking cry for help. Where’s it going to wind up for her? Husband James does the best he can, he even warily employs Beau to accompany them on the comeback tour, to perform and also to watch out for his wife. Chiles Stanton, for reasons I don’t remember, is also brought along… as an opening act. Naturally, the youthful hottie with great pipes—now with Beau-inspired self-belief—stimulates the throngs, further troubling the anxious Kelly.

So there you go, the main elements. They’re interspersed with some fine singing in the ‘old’ country tradition, not the Patsy Cline era but a decade or two later—I’m thinking Barbara Mandrell‘s style—where the performances hadn’t gone completely Heavy Metal. The showcase performance by Paltrow is dynamite. How can one not be thrilled by Ms. Meester’s singing? And the renditions by Garrett Hedlund keep us moving forward comfortably to the conclusion—satisfying if not fully convincing.

Yes, occasionally Country Strong gives off the aura of a big movie like Nashville (1975), but aside from Ms. Paltrow’s sterling presence the film just doesn’t have the horsepower to climb the hill. It’s fine. Plenty of room for neighborly films with realistic souls wielding vibrant verse.

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