I'm not entirely sure it still exists, but there has been two different subgroups within the country music genre for several years now (perhaps as far back as Shania Twain's "Come On Over" album in 1997): the older-school, flat-out country music of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash to name a few, and the pop-country that performers like Twain, Faith Hill and others have flourished under. It's the latter group that, while providing newfound exposure to the music in general, has given it an identity crisis of sorts. Embrace the pretty faces for the smoking and drinking of yesteryear has to be a tough proposition for sure. That's hardly the dilemma faced by those in Country Strong, but there are other issues plaguing the film.
Country Strong was written and directed by Shana Feste, her follow-up to her 2009 film The Greatest. The main character is Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man 2), a country music singer whose last concert ended with her falling off of the stage in a drunken haze and having a miscarriage of a child she had with her manager/husband James (Tim McGraw, The Blind Side). The film starts with Kelly leaving rehab early to mount a comeback, both at James' urging and against the suggestions of Beau (Garret Hedlund, TRON: Legacy), who works at the facility and is also an aspiring country singer in more of the previously mentioned old school form. James invites him on the tour as well, performing next to Chiles (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl), a former beauty queen hoping for her own career in country music in more of the new school. We see the ups and downs of Kelly's tour, not to mention the personal conflicts and PDAs that occur.
In her previous life, Feste worked as a nanny for Tobey Maguire who produced the film. I mention this because it would appear that Maguire gave her the money to make this film without having read the script, because frankly the film is long and overindulgent and its characters have their own identity crises over the course of two hours. It's funny when you see one character say of Kelly that "she's the only honest one here" before minutes later you see her on top of a odious concert promoter, humping ferociously in order to prevent a key tour date from being cancelled. THAT'S honesty? That's writing past your capabilities if you ask me. That's a small sampling of what goes on as the film tries to mix character development and musical movie sequences into a mash-up where one starts to root against the star after awhile.
While we're on the subject, as far as Kelly goes it's hard to tell just what it is that Paltrow's trying to do in the role. Is she trying to play the tragic protagonist? Is she truly trying to help her character's rehabilitation despite an unhappy marriage to James and a burgeoning romance with Beau? She can certainly sing decently (though it would appear the songs she performs are lip-synced in concerts, or at the very least there is a background track to sing to), but it's nothing that she hasn't done in Glee already, and I didn't have to pay to see that. McGraw is serviceable as the husband, which is saying something as he's the one among the cast with the least experience. Hedlund is also decent, though to borrow something I heard from Doug Benson a few weeks ago on his podcast, it's nice that crappy beards are making their way into prominent roles in television and movies. The best performance in the film might belong to Meester, who is an effective mix of apprehension, innocence and earnest performances, and definitely a departure from her starring television role. One can only hope there is more to come from her in similar performances and even more so with better material.
Overall, I think that the cast and crew of Country Strong had the purest intentions in mind to make the film, and perhaps shape it in such a way that it was an appreciation of country music. But in musical terms, they have created something that is equivalent to a 16 year old performer singing the Sun Records catalog. It's insulting to both common sense and intelligence, and is something that would have been better suited to have not been attempted in the first place.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Country Strong looks okay, but I did have a nit to pick over it. The image looks fine and the flesh tones appear accurate, and colors are solid without oversaturation. But in a couple of sequences where Gwyneth is onstage behind a wall of lights, there would appear to be edge enhancement applied in those areas, and while there is some noise during those sequences Paltrow in the foreground looks off. It wasn't a horrible looking transfer, but the tinkering was a bit distracting.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track replicates the performances and concert hall experience of Kelly's tour well, with a low rumble of bass and gentle immersion through all of the channels. Even in smaller club sequences you get the same mix of low rumbling noise and clear vocals in the center channel with supporting music in both front channels. As it is the centerpiece of the film I'd hope it would sound good. The dialogue in between the music though is on the soft side and requires some compensation before being jolted back into the feature with a live song. It's not the best surround track I've listened to, but it does the job.
The original ending (2:53) of the film makes it even sillier and pointless than the original cut, which is saying something. Four deleted scenes (4:33) are next, and aside from a small story arc with Beau and his Mom, are forgettable. An extended concert performance of Paltrow's song "Shake That Thing" follows (4:02), along with a real live soundstage shot music video for the Paltrow-helmed song "Country Strong" (3:58). A video from Sara Evans from the film's soundtrack is the last thing on the disc (4:47), save for a still promoting the soundtrack.
Country Strong tries its hardest to be Coal Miner's Daughter but with a muddling story and subpar performances could be midnight movie fodder in Nashville for years to come. I wouldn't bother with this if you're a fan of the genre (or even the stars), you could find yourself bearing a grudge afterwards.