by Josephine Grahl
In Country Strong, which opened two weeks ago in the UK, Gwyneth Paltrow plays a self-destructive country music star struggling with alcoholism, who is pulled out of rehab by her manager-husband and forced to tour. So far, so clichéd. Country music films abound in scenes of alcoholism, breakdown and emotional dysfunction: from Robert Duvall’s alcoholic former star in Tender Mercies to Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash impersonation in Walk the Line. When, in Country Strong, Gwyneth Paltrow breaks down on stage, babbling about the stars and crying, it brings to mind Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter and, Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville. But both Spacek and Blakley manage to convince as troubled stars: Gwyneth Paltrow is not remotely convincing as a country singer, let alone as a suicidal alcoholic.
In Coalminer’s Daughter and Nashville, the onstage breakdown comes in the context of memories of growing up poor in the country. More than any other kind of music, country is rooted in the experience of the white American working class, and typically in the experiences of the rural, Southern poor – think of Dolly Parton’s “Tennessee Mountain Home”, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”, Loretta Lynn’s “Butcher Holler” (‘I was born a coalminer’s daughter/In a cabin on a hill near Butcher Holler’). Music springs from the experience of the community, and particularly from the church: ‘Where did you learn music?’ June Carter’s mother asks Johnny Cash’s mother in Walk the Line, then answers her own question ‘Same place I did, I’ll bet – from the hymnal’.
This rootedness is absent from Country Strong; the characters appear in a vacuum. They name-drop great country singers to allow the film to posit a conflict between the popular and the authentic – so soulful picker Beau Hutton, played by Garrett Hedlund, is described as ‘the new Townes Van Zandt’, while vapid beauty pageant star Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) is compared to Carrie Underwood. But none of the central characters appear to have any natural connection with the music they are supposedly passionate about making.
Without this kind of grounding in the characters’ personal histories, the spangled pageantry of country music comes across as just that: pageantry. The aspirational gap between the gaudy costumes and the dusty backgrounds of the characters loses its pathos and its point. If the music springs from working class roots, yet it’s the music which makes you rich, then the more successful you are at creating something which speaks to listeners, the further you will be removed from your class roots and from the roots of your own art form.
In Coal Miner’s Daughter, the contrast between the huge wig and spangled milkmaid outfit in which Sissy Spacek performs the title song and the faded cotton dresses she wears in the Butcher Holler scenes makes this clear: her fame has pulled her far away from the working class community she sentimentalises in song. The same dislocation is also visible in Nashville’s Barbara Jean, who sings about her rural upbringing (‘Momma and Daddy raised me with love and care/They sacrificed, so I could have a better share’) despite her life of private jets and private clinics. When Barbara Jean is shot near the end of the film we see the next cycle of this pattern: an unnamed character we only know as a wannabe star, who has run away from an uncaring husband and a life of poverty to try and ‘make it’ in Nashville, unites the crowd in song – and suddenly her star quality shines through.
The class dislocation of the country star is experienced at its greatest in the clash between home and the road, between domesticity and showbiz glitz. In Walk the Line, Johnny Cash’s first wife Vivian is unable to deal with the realities of Johnny’s life away from her on tour and the enthusiasm of his female fans, while he’s unable to deal with the experience of entering the moneyed classes. His relationship with June Carter has a lot to do with the fact that she, as the more experienced star, is able to teach him how to cope with his new status. The same conflict between domesticity and showbiz occurs in the Willie Nelson film Honeysuckle Rose, where Willie Nelson plays a married country star who has an affair with his band’s guitarist and is found out by his wife when she makes an unexpected visit to one of his gigs. (The soundtrack to Honeysuckle Rose is terrific, with a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris and the Willie Nelson classic On the Road Again.)
The same contrast is made between ‘real’ life and showbiz in Tender Mercies, in which alcoholic former country star Mac Sledge (played by Robert Duvall) can only retrieve his artistic integrity when he distances himself from the world of showbiz: once he finds happiness with Texan widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), he rediscovers his songwriting talent and can begin to make amends for the damage he did to his first wife. Tragedy strikes when the daughter from his first marriage (‘She always had everything she wanted’) is killed in a car crash while eloping: the spoiled child who is given all the advantages that the working class parents missed out on is a bitter reminder of the problems of shifting social classes.
In Nashville we also encounter the child who has been given every advantage: country star Haven Hamilton proudly introduces his son, Bud, who has been to Harvard law school. Nashville, with its enormous cast and patchwork narrative, presents us with a queasy view of post-Watergate America, riven with internal contradictions, from the rifle-twirling cheerleaders to the unsettling ‘Alternative’ political party whose campaign car provides an ongoing obbligato commentary on the corruption of Congress and the need for a new way of doing politics. A central theme is the contrast of the authentic and the popular, shown by the conflict between Barbara Jean, the ‘old-style’ country star and her newer, shinier and glitzier rival Connie White. More subtly, Robert Altman contrasts the most hackneyed and twangy of country songs with the most affecting moment of the narrative. ‘I cannot leave my wife/There are three reasons why,’ sings the old star Haven Hamilton ‘Jimmy and Kathy and sweet Lorelei.’ It’s pure schmaltz, but it movingly reflects the dilemma of gospel singer Linnea Reese (played by Lily Tomlin), whose lover is completely unable to understand the strength of the bond between her and her deaf children. This is why country music speaks to people despite its tendency towards sentimentality: because sentimentality at its simplest can sometimes embody a universal truth.
Josephine Grahl blogs at Blue Stockings
“Country Strong” is on general release (Sony Pictures UK)