Country Strong maintains a fantastic concept that will engage anyone who has ever had their curiosity piqued by the personal lives of superstars. More than that, however, this film is a tale about redemption, forgiveness and second chances, which anyone can appreciate. Encompass those elements with the earnestness of country music and audiences get a satisfying, cinematic formula. While the film clocks in just under two hours, no minute is wasted and moviegoers won’t leave the theater wanting more – or less.
Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a six-time Grammy Award-winning country music artist with an alcohol addiction. At her last concert, she was so drunk that she fell off the stage, losing the baby she had been carrying for five months. She’s checked into a rehab facility where she meets and falls in love with Beau Hatton (Garrett Hedlund) who works there as a “sponsor” and moonlights playing country music. Complicating this relationship is Kelly’s husband/manager James (Tim McGraw) who wants to take Kelly out of rehab a month early and start performing again. He’s even lined up a new opening act – the young and beautiful Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who Kelly thinks James is attracted to. Circumstances and personal agendas bring these four people together for Kelly’s comeback tour where personalities collide, relationships die while others blossom and no one is safe from the storm that is modern day show business.
If Country Strong were simply about a substance-abusing superstar, then the film would be more cliché than it has to be. Thankfully, writer/director Shana Feste set the story within the world of country music, which typically avoids ending up on the front pages of tabloids. Thus, presenting a very flawed Kelly Canter within a realm that is stereotyped by religious wholesomeness is an effective dynamic that’s instantly interesting. Furthermore, people – American audiences especially – want to forgive and they want to see characters redeem themselves. Country Strong won’t disappoint on that end and will sometimes infuriate in a very cathartic way when Kelly stumbles again and again.
The ensemble cast jells amazingly well, forming a makeshift dysfunctional family that seems destined to butt heads. Those rare moments, however, when characters are able to connect are moving, even if those scenes sometimes skew towards treacly. Strong performances by the entire cast keep the film from devolving into melodrama and their stage performances make the actors seem like they’ve been playing country music for years. As impressive as their acting is, it’s the cast’s musical performances that will truly surprise. All of the actors playing vocalists sing their own songs and only a handful of diehard country music fans will be able to tell that the singers aren’t bona fides.
On a final note, there’s a subtle brilliance in the writing here that reveals itself just enough to give the world of the film life without trying to be clever. Whether it’s the metaphor of the baby bird Kelly and her husband care for or the visceral reactions characters have to bad news, everything about Country Strong feels real. At the end of two hours, audiences will feel like they know these characters. That’s not to say that there aren’t contrived scenes or improbably convenient moments, but sometimes life can be that way too.
A defining characteristic of country music is its strong storytelling aspect and Country Strong does a marvelous job of continuing that theme. As such, viewers who aren’t interested in country music will still find plenty to enjoy in this film. All of the elements complement each other to tell a satisfying story that reflects the human weaknesses – and strengths – in all of us.