Blu-ray Review: COUNTRY STRONG
The smiles may be dazzling, the faces may be pretty, but in the best traditions of the genre it sure as hell isn’t going to end up all wine and roses.
I have to admit to being a little bit country; of course Im talking Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard kind of country. Somebodys leaving someone songs, things are bad, they get better, then they get worse. Its the stock-in-trade of classic country music. Country Strong, the latest attempt to put this part of cultural Americana on screen seems to understand this core paean to everyday melodrama, but dresses it up in the guise of a superstar on the rocks and the youngsters trying to make it big. The smiles may be dazzling, the faces may be pretty, but in the best traditions of the genre it sure as hell isnt going to end up all wine and roses. Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the country singing star suffering through an alcohol fuelled breakdown after suffering a miscarriage during a concert in Dallas where her addled state caused her to fall off stage. In the rehab centre shes become attached to staff member and talented songer/songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), even though shes still married to (and seemingly still in love with) her husband and manager James Canter (real life country star, and surprisingly effective, Tim McGraw). He has plans to get Kelly back in the public eye via three huge concerts in Houston, Austin, and finally her bête noire, Dallas. Shes patently still fragile. Beau knows it, James tries to ignore it, and adding to the fun times is Jamess decision to hire Beau and sparkly, young singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) as the opening acts. Beaus rugged, classic roots butting heads with Chiless more chart-friendly tunesmithery. Cue jealousy, falling off wagons, artistic animosity, smashed bottles, the odd punch-up and a fair few tears. This is country as familiar cliché, not Altmanesque revisionism, and theres nothing wrong with that, but Country Strong doesnt quite know where to point its focus within the character quartet. Paltrows Kelly is the damaged planetoid around which the others orbit, not just as a person, but as an entire event, and she tackles the distanced loneliness of poisoned stardom with her usual verve. However shes a little hard to pin down, the back-story a little too sketchy, and amongst all the angst and bad behaviour there isnt a whole lot to hang our sympathies on. Which probably explains the segue into visiting a cute, little leukaemia victim named Travis about two-thirds in. Her main purpose seems to be to pinball the others into their own problems and resolutions, but as a cypher Paltrow is too familiar, too much of a superstar herself to fully allow the spotlight to fall on anyone else. You can see how on paper it would have seemed a good fit and if Country Strong was solely the Kelly Canter story it would have been. In this story though the most interesting characters and dynamics are those of Beau and Chiles; and in their opposites attract relationship, and the music that comes from it, the movie feels most at home. Music, of course, is the reason why any of this human train-wreck exists, and the film-makers have gratifyingly steered fairly clear of what Beau disparagingly calls county pop and sourced a decent collection of classic-sounding, crowd-pleasing tunes. Plus its the cast themselves that are doing the singing and performing. Paltrow and Meester are equally impressive in getting those inflections just right, but its Hedlund, with his mans man, traditionalist country stance and gravelly vocals that is the stand-out. Ironically Beau is the one who turns away from recording stardom, when Hedlund is the one who should probably book himself an afternoon in the studio. In the end naturally there must be heartbreak, but Country Strong cant quite stay 100% on track, leaving us a feel-good coda to hang our ten-gallon hats on. Although to be fair, thats just another dose of reality. Theres a world of difference between a two hour movie, and three and a half minutes of somebody leaving someone. TRANSFER: On my 42 Panasonic LCD the picture quality is expectantly sharp, and the colours are well-balanced and clean. All in all a very good transfer. Its the sound though that makes the difference with a music heavy film like Country Strong. Hooked up to surround sound the performances are, depending on your point of view, either bar-stage / stadium electric or something that needs the volume turned down EXTRAS:Original Ending: This is the bittersweet finale that perhaps should have remained Deleted scenes: All four flesh out Beaus character a little more, even though one is barely 15 seconds long. Theyre usually deleted scenes for a reason of course Music videos: Gwyneth Paltrow Country Strong, and Sara Evans A Little Bit Stronger. Extended concert performance of Gwyneth Paltrow singing Shake that Thing. Featurettes: Friends in High Places: The cast of Country Strong, Putting the Words in Their Mouths: The Songwriters, A Little Bit Country: The Costumes. BD Live content features the Country Strong playlist Country Strong is out today on Blu-ray!