Country Strong (Blu-ray)
The archetype of the self-destructive musician: from Orpheus of Greek myth to AMADEUS to Lindsay Lohan, it’s an old, old story in real life and fiction alike. In the right hands, its familiar outlines have the reassuring firmness of a classic fable; in the wrong hands, it’s just a boring story you’ve heard a thousand times before. And, unfortunately, COUNTRY STRONG is one of the latter.
Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a platinum-selling country-and-western star, but as the movie opens with her early release from rehab and dark whispers swirling about something worse than a drunken escapade that occurred at her last concert, we get the sense that she is on the downward arc of her career. Her strict and flinty husband/manager James (country legend Tim McGraw) seems to agree; he’s booked a comeback tour for her, but he hedges his bets by bringing along her friend and rehab sponsor, Beau (Garrett Hedlund), who is an aspiring musician himself (and, unbeknownst to James, Kelly’s lover). To round out the menagerie, James also recruits Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a fresh young beauty-pageant queen with a gift for the over-produced pop country sound that self-styled authentic cowboys like Beau despise.
The outlines of the drama begin to take shape: Kelly wants to stay sober, but she isn’t really ready for the pressures of the road or the competition from the hot young star. James wants his wife to seize this last chance to succeed, but he doesn’t trust her and finds himself attracted to the younger girl. Chiles is naïve and is holding back some secrets of her own, while Beau, the sensitive cowboy balladeer, is actually a hateful, bitter man with a grudge against everyone and everything around him.
None of this is original, but in the right hands, it could have been memorable and interesting anyway. Unfortunately, Shana Feste, who wrote and directed, simply isn’t up to the job. Visually, there is nothing going on: the entire film could have been told as a stage play, since nearly every scene ends up with two characters in a dressing room trading fortune-cookie dialogue about going for it and how it’s about the music. What’s worse, the plot and editing are so confused that there is no buildup or release of tension; characters pair up romantically, feud, throw tantrums and sing their hearts out on stage in ways that don’t logically follow from one to the next. I am not joking or exaggerating when I say that you could watch the DVD with the chapter order shuffled and the movie would make almost no less sense.
The sad thing is that none of this is really the actors’ fault; they work hard to sell their characters and the emotions of the story. Tim McGraw follows in the footsteps of his country forebear Dwight Yoakam in turning out to be a surprisingly strong actor, able to hold his own on screen with an experienced presence like Gwyneth Paltrow. Equally surprising is that Paltrow, the metrosexual weeping willow, makes a convincing country star, belting out the tunes with a real Grand Old Opry stage presence. In fact, if there is an upshot to COUNTRY STRONG, it is the music performances, which feel authentic and tell us far more about the characters than the flimsy dialogue.
But that isn’t nearly enough to save this overlong indulgence of a movie. As I said at the beginning, there’s nothing wrong with telling a twice-told tale: you just need to do it well. That said, if your plot seriously hinges on twists that WALK HARD and THIS IS SPINAL TAP were making fun of years or decades ago, it couldn’t hurt to take a second look and ask if this is a story that really needs to be told again.
Video: Very little about COUNTRY STRONG is memorable or worthwhile visually, but the 1080p 2.40:1 Blu-Ray transfer is sharp and flawless, so you can see one tear-stained closeup of Gwyneth Paltrow after another in crystal clarity.
Audio: The Dolby 5.1 DTS-HD audio is similarly competent; the music swells the speakers on all sides, giving a good gut-rattling approximation of an actual live concert, while the dialogue still comes in clearly on the center channel. This is important for a movie that has so much talking with loud music in the background.
Deleted Scenes (4:31) – A pair of nonessential scenes that don’t really feel particularly different from what actually made it into the film.
“Shake That Thing,” extended (4:02) – The full take of one of the movie’s several “in-concert” performances.
Original Ending (2:52) – Slightly altered from the original, a bit bleaker, but not tremendously different – I can’t honestly say I care that much how COUNTRY STRONG ends, but for what it’s worth I prefer the theatrical ending.
Friends in High Places (14:03) – The obligatory making-of featurette, heavy with clips from the film.
Putting the Words in Their Mouths (8:52) – A brief look at the challenges involved in composing the music for the film, and the effort the songwriters made to ensure that the various styles of country music represented in the film felt authentic and made sense for the characters.
A Little Bit Country: The Costumes (6:46) – A featurette about the thought that went into designing the costumes for Gwyneth Paltrow and Leighton Meester’s characters.
Music Videos (8:43) – Two videos of Paltrow and Sara Evans performing songs from the film.