The husband manager of the beloved country singer just out of rehab says to her, “Do I tell you how to sing, darlin’? Hmm? Have I ever told you how to sing a song?” “That ain’t the point,” she weakly responds, and he keeps going. “Don’t tell me how to run your life. I been doin’ pretty good with it.”
That brief exchange 36 years ago in the classic Robert Altman film, “Nashville,” summarizes the new Gwyneth Paltrow film, “Country Strong.” She plays Kelly Canter, always introduced as a six-time Grammy winner, whose husband-manager James (played by real-life country superstar Tim McGraw) takes her out of rehab a month early for a series of concerts, on the theory that her brand needs more rehabilitation than her substance abuse problem.
But the incomplete rehab is not the only unfinished business. In a performance in Dallas, Kelly, then five months pregnant, was so drunk she fell off the stage. She has to regain the trust of her fans, concert promoters, her husband, and — toughest of all — herself.
To make things even more complicated and difficult, the opening acts for her new tour are Beau (“Tron: Legacy’s” Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles (“Gossip Girl’s” Leighton Meester). Kelly likes Beau. James likes Chiles. Beau and Chiles like each other. Not even a country song, much less a movie, can manage all that drama.
The music is the best part. Hedlund has a surprisingly rich singing voice, the mahogany tones giving depth and stature to an under-written character, and Meester handles her songs like the beauty pageant contestant with Taylor Swift ambitions she is asked to play. But all of Paltrow’s considerable acting chops are not up to the challenge of playing either a country singer or a substance abuser. Her toned, willowy body and elegant, urban posture are out of place and her singing voice, while pleasant and tuneful is far better suited to the saucy songs she performed on “Glee.”
As in her first film, The Greatest, writer-director Shana Feste shows a great deal of promise, but like many excited beginners, she still has not figured out how to remove the clutter from her story. Individual scenes work well enough and the songs are very good but she juggles too many relationships with too many ups and downs and the conclusion feels unearned and tacked on. Part of the power of a country song is its simplicity in telling its story, a lesson Feste still needs to learn.
Parents should know that this film has frequent drinking and smoking, character abuses pills and alcohol, other characters get tipsy, strong language, references to miscarriage, sexual references and situations including adultery, some punches, and a suicide.
Family discussion: What do we learn from the bird Kelly and James care for? Are Kelly and James harder on each other or themselves? What real-life performers inspired these characters?
If you like this, try: “Nashville