Country Strong, director and writer Shana Feste’s second feature, is exceptional at delivering entertaining music numbers and tear-jerking character acting, but comes up short when overtly trying to deliver its message.
The film’s main thesis is that it’s impossible to have both fame and true love. Though the plotline isn’t overly sophisticated, the acting is terrific—perfectly nuanced, which allows the audience to feel what each of the four main characters is experiencing.
These four richly textured characters draw out the best and worst in each other. Take, for instance, the Grammy Award-winning songbird Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow). She is a recovering alcoholic forced by her manager-husband, James (Tim McGraw), to return to the stage prematurely for a three-city tour.
Seemingly having chosen fame over love, Kelly and her husband’s marriage is on the rocks when she enters into an affair with younger budding singer Beau Hutton (Tron Legacy star Garrett Hedlund). James convinces Beau to join Kelly’s tour in order to help him “keep an eye on her.” Things become even more complicated when former beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Gossip Girls' Leighton Meester) enters the picture as a young rising singer slated to open for Kelly.
The quartet of characters is then enmeshed in interesting scenarios, which cleverly highlight the insecurities and fears that each character is experiencing.
Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that Feste hammers her message home in a rather overly melodramatic and contrived manner.
The film’s release is definitely timed with Oscar season. Gwyneth Paltrow plays her character exceptionally well, in the role of an alcoholic and emotionally battered country music star struggling with her marriage. Most impressively, she is believable as a professional singer—the result of months of voice and guitar lessons.
Tim McGraw, one of the most famous country singers of our time, is also a very talented character actor. He recently co-starred alongside Sandra Bullock in last year’s breakthrough hit The Blind Side.
In a role more in line with his country roots, he inspires empathy as a man torn between doing what’s best for his wife and what’s best for his career. Ironically, his character is the only one that doesn’t sing in the film, yet his mere presence lends tremendous credibility to the country music-inspired story.
Meester proves she’s more than just a sitcom talking head. She thoroughly impresses with her nuanced portrayal of a burgeoning country singer, who idolizes Kelly and is driven to be successful. And yet, she’s also insecure and kindhearted.
The beauty of these characters is their multifaceted dimensionality, like a crystal emanating different colors under the sunlight. Garrett Hedlund’s hard work in preparing for his role paid off, so much so that I actually thought he was a real country singer when his character sings his first song.
Nashville, where Country Strong was filmed, is itself a main character, as are the catchy country tunes. All of them were written specifically for the movie by some of country music’s most renowned songwriters and musicians.
Unfortunately, the movie’s plot and storyline fail to live up to the phenomenal acting and singing. The takeaway that love is more important than fame is a strong idea, but the ending went too far in blatantly trying to illustrate that.