Friday, January 14, 2011

Country Strong [2010]

MPAA Rating (PG-13) CNS/USCCB Rating (A-III) Roger Ebert's Review (2 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis' Review (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Eberts' Review -

The movie Country Strong [2010] is not complicated. It's built around a 40-something country-western Diva coming to the end of her career. The storyline, the characters and even the camerawork are all very simple, at times even cartoonish. But just because the storyline is largely predictable and many of the stadium concert scenes were self-evidently filmed in front of a blue screen and pasted over stock country western concert footage doesn’t disqualify Country Strong from being an entertaining and surprisingly deep movie: I’ve been a lifelong sucker for country music precisely because while, yes, it's often schmaltzy it is also about life.

So in the midst of the simple storyline some big themes and tragedies play out.

The fictional Diva who’s career is nearing its end is named Kelly Canter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) a 40 something country superstar who’s been in rehab for a number of months after a disastrous performance in Dallas where, stone drunk with a 0.19 alcohol level, she tripped over an electrical cable and fell 10 feet off the stage killing her 5 month old unborn baby in the process. Yes, Kelly was a mess.

Kelly’s producer-husband is James Canter (played by real-life country music superstar and actor Tim McGraw. In real-life, McGraw is married to real-life 40-something year-old country western diva Faith Hill). James Canter has become a slick, hardened country music producer who probably put his job (along with its perks) ahead of his marriage long before Kelly’s incident in Dallas. Nevertheless for a number of possible/probable reasons James appears to have had a tough time forgiving Kelly for that disaster. After all, Kelly’s fall would have certainly hit the couple’s bottom line. Further, producer though he was, his wife Kelly would have certainly been his main client. Now what? And then Kelly’s fall killed what would have been the couple’s only child. A former insurance salesman, James was a man of the world with his feet on the ground. In contrast, Kelly was a "broken angel" who just loved to sing (and loved to be loved) probably never understanding the financial end of what she was doing.

In rehab, Kelly probably messes-up her life further by getting involved with a “young buck” named Beau Hutton (played by Garrett Hedlund) who lives for playing good-ole boy country music in small town bars and honky-tonks by night while working simply as a laborer at the Rehab center by day. This the two have in common – they both love the music. And Kelly becomes something of a mentor figure to Beau even though it's obvious that they were having a sexual relationship while he should have been working and she should have been working on getting better. James comes in one day (at the beginning of the movie) to take Kelly out of Rehab, prematurely as it is, because he’s lined-up a relatively short string of stadium shows that would still salvage her/their careers. He finds Beau in Kelly’s room (Kelly dressed only in a bathrobe). Beau is presented to James as one of her “sponsors.” James lets it go.

It soon becomes clear that James also has put together other plans while Kelly’s been in Rehab. Sure Kelly Canter is going to be the head-liner of this tour, but he’s also found another, much younger, singer named Chiles Stanton who's “a small town prom queen” played superbly by actress Leighton Meister of Gossip Girl fame. Just how the two met, God only knows and why big-time Nashville producer James Canter would pull someone like Chiles to out of thin air to be the warm-up act for his mega-star wife, Kelly Canter, is a further mystery. Obviously, sex was involved but it’s reflective of a sadness and desperation felt by both James Canter and Chiles. Anyway, if Kelly is a “broken angel”, Chiles is a “broken prom queen.” And the scriptwriters leave it to Beau to try to save them both.

To give some respectability to Chiles Stanton’s stature, she given a gig in a small club on Broadway street in Nashville, where it turns out that Beau was supposed to be the head-liner that night. He gets his set but the board outside puts Chiles as the head-liner. Though pissed-off, he goes along. Then Chiles goes-up on stage and freezes. Not wanting to see her “die” like that on stage, Beau comes up on stage with his guitar singing Garth Brooks' "(I've Got) Friends in Low Places" and nods to Chiles to chime in. She does, regains her confidence and proves that she can sing, finishing then the rest of her set.

James, who only met Beau that morning while pulling his wife out of rehab is impressed and after the show asks Beau to join the tour. Initially, Beau says no saying that “big stadiums are not [his] thing.” But he’s guilted into it as James notes that he actually could help both Chiles and Kelly. And besides wasn’t he one of Kelly’s “sponsors” after all. So Beau says yes.

A few days later, the tour leaves Nashville for Houston, Austin and, finally, Dallas. As described above, the tour has been put together by spit and polish and is hanging together by a thread.

Much of course happens. Many younger musicians and “purists” of all ages and genres would appreciate the movie’s obvious criticism of Big Music. Sure there are the lights and there is the fame, but at what cost? The portrayal of the monstrous pseudo-Fascism of the stadium shows would be something that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters would certainly appreciate as his album / movie The Wall of nearly 30 years ago made the same point.

One of the joys of country music for its musicians is that one could happily grow old working a day job and just playing/frequenting a few small bars and honky-tonks singing lyrics like “I ain’t no poet, I'm just a drunk with a pen” without ever having to sell one’s own soul.

I _liked_ this movie and I liked its characters (as broken and as cardboard cutouts as they often seemed). But then I’ve always been a sucker for heartfelt but hopelessly schmaltzy lyrics like those above or the “small town prom queen” Chiles’ "Summer Girl" – “I'm just a summer girl, I wear my flip flops. When I let my hair down, that's when the party starts. And who needs a boyfriend, I’ve got my girl friends, and when we get together, the summer never ends.”

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