Today, we live in a world where special effects burdened, surface skittering megalomaniacal space operas fueled by doom and gloom mania are stilted only by the installment of Hollywood’s next $200 million dollar blockbuster movie and sadly, everything between or betwixt is left defenseless and broken bits like so much stomped, sneaker colored popcorn. Country Song doesn’t profess to compete with her predecessors; films like Robert Altman’s Nashville or more recently the award-winning Crazy Heart are altogether different films. What writer-director Shana Feste sets out to accomplish is more an ode to character study, an inspection of the top-layered emotional demolitions of celebrities and everyday people colliding in the space we sometimes take for granted. The fact of the matter is that this film operates on hope and the brutal honest truth – life is more than wanting and it is more than having when what you really need deep down in your heart is a place to belong.
Any number of reviews will dissuade you from watching this film. Some have praised Gwyneth Paltrow who co-stars as the crash-pilot country starlet who never levels out, who never really regains her former glory except briefly, necessarily in a nose dive with irrevocable consequences. Further to that point is the remaining cast who except for real-life country singer turned actor Tim McGraw, sing and perform their songs throughout the film in that achingly touching way that reaches you no matter how much you resist, no matter how much you think you shouldn’t. I’ve learned this is the nexus of country music to her people, to the masters often referred to in the film, Haggard and Wynette, Jennings and to times past and those just up ahead, fleeting as we get smaller and look desperately for something to hold onto or just be remembered.
Country Song is perhaps most notable for the balancing act between character and singer, between the people we see interacting often in mostly believable, emotionally conflicted ways and when they are on stage delivering a performance. When actors portray singers they come very close to unbelievable when it is apparent they cannot sing or play an instrument. Films like Crazy Heart feel right because Jeff Bridges and Colin Ferrel are really singing. Films like Clint Eastwood’s Bird, however convincing otherwise, is lesser so as Foreset Whitaker is not a jazz saxophone player. The same can be said for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues in that we know going in that the band, the performers themselves, are just actors. It takes more than that to make music.
There is no denying the palpability of the actors or the successful tugging at our own failures and successes outside bright lights or those dim green, florescent ones in our offices, which permeates this film. The one true theme, that of love and fame canceling one another out is at times heavy-handed and played to the point we’re not sure whether to agree or step out-of-the-way and hope for a happy ending. Detractors have been cruel, citing soap opera antics and superficiality as signs of a weak director and even more so a tangled script that never does deliver on the promise of besting our demons, of trial by fire and lessons learned. We experience the hardship of having made it and fallen, such a familiar theme in Hollywood these days as one pop star after another succumbs to the burden of popularity gone awry when good looks and talent cannot sustain the sham of celebrity. We raise our stars mighty high then pull them back earthward and clamor around their crater as if to reinforce our own need for deprecation.
Country Strong succeeds despite every reason that it bogs down with needing to be everything for everyone and only really touching those who long to see specific heroes on the screen; these happen to wear cowboy hats and trip up easily, people singing about living, loving and moving on. At the end of it all when the lights fade to black and the relationships are either healed or fractured further, when love changes a little or not at all, when the once faded shines one last time and innocence avoids the pitfall just this time, Country Strong is just that because.