Theatrical Review: COUNTRY STRONG
Musicals are a tricky breed. They are by nature grandiose and melodramatic, and there is nothing more detrimental to the genre than being forgettable. The best musicals engage the audience, keep them guessing, and always further the story through music. The worst have lack-luster characters, a tired story, and most insulting - terrible music. COUNTRY STRONG is somewhere in the middle.
Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) aspires to write true country songs for all people. He isn’t interested in the flash of Nashville, rather he’s attracted to the stories and lives of small town Tennessee. During a court ordered stay at his rehab facility, Beau meets country super-star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), bonding with and learning from her. Her sobriety fragile following an early release from the facility, Kelly begs her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) to bring Beau on the road for her comeback tour to keep her grounded and away from the bottle. At first James refuses, choosing instead to book Dallas beauty queen singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) as the opening act, but then quickly recants once he sees the way Beau calms the green Chiles before her audition. Once on the road their lives intertwine. Chiles thirsts for Kelly’s career, Kelly teeters each night closer to the edge of fame-driven insanity, and James loves his wife but can’t forgive her past indiscretions. And in the center is Beau. Each of these damaged wheel spokes connect to the sweet yet guarded singer, and he has to choose if he wants to remain the hub at their center or step away from potential fame, and love, for good.
While COUNTRY STRONG often feels like two uneven movies in one, writer/director Shana Feste’s backstage musical hits all the right notes for a classic melodrama. This isn’t the sweet coming-of-age love story tale the trailers suggest. It is a love story for sure, but love is heartbreaking and often tragic in COUNTRY STRONG. Paired with talent and fame, love pushes these characters to dark places, and leaves in its wake unfathomable damage. It’s not until the end of the journey that the audience begins to see some hope for a few, while others must suffer for the choices they’ve made.
The musical would be nothing without talented singers. While Paltrow has come a long way since her debut singing performance in DUETS and Meester sounds like a pop singer trying her hand at country, the biggest surprise is Hedlund. He isn’t a trained singer, however his whiskey-tinged voice is remarkable. He isn’t an actor playing a country singer - he is a country singer. His voice encompasses more than Beau’s heartache, it anchors the entire movie. I’m not a huge country fan, but I want to buy anything and everything that he does in the future.
For all its conservative and homegrown ideals, the world of country music is a perfect setting for an over-the-top melodrama. I went in expecting an emotional ride, and COUNTRY STRONG delivered. Nevertheless, those looking for a happy musical should maybe re-watch SINGING IN THE RAIN.