Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold

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Paterson


Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Brian McCarthy, Frank Harts, Luis Da Silva Jr., Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Kacey Cockett, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Sterling Jerins, Masatoshi Nagase, Sophia Muller. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

Paterson is a bus driver. Paterson is also coincidentally the name of the New Jersey town in which Paterson plies his trade. It is not coincidentally the home of famed 20th century poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Paterson (the bus driver) also writes poetry in a journal he keeps with him. He scribbles during lunch breaks and before he starts work. He uses mundane, everyday subjects to inspire him. He leads a mundane, everyday life.

Director Jarmusch is notorious (or acclaimed) for finding the rhythms of life and setting his films to those rhythms. We see Paterson’s routine; getting up in the morning at 6:15 precisely, eating breakfast with his wife Laura (Farahani), going to work, coming home for dinner – Laura is apparently not much of a cook but he gamely is polite about pretending to enjoy it. Afterwards he takes his English bulldog Marvin out for a walk, ending up at his favorite watering hole talking with Doc (Henley) the bartender and then heading home to go to sleep with his wife.

We follow Paterson in his routine over the course of a week. It’s not a particularly important week – just a normal, mundane, everyday week. His wife is making cupcakes for a popup farmer’s market. She has ordered a guitar which she paints black and white like everything else in the house and dreams of becoming a country music star, which would be a bit of a stretch being that she is an immigrant from Iran which in the current climate might not fly among a certain element that loves country. He overhears conversations on the bus, adjusts his mailbox which always seems to be leaning (late in the film we find out why), and sometimes just sits out by the beautiful waterfall that is Paterson’s pride and joy.

Paterson is definitely a working class environment. Some might remember that it was the town in which Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was framed for murder; it is referenced during the film but not dwelled upon, at least not as much as the fact that it was also the home of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame. Then again, Laura’s penchant for black and white patterns might allude to the racial divide that led to one of the most notorious legal cases of the 20th century that was part of the DNA of Paterson at the time.

There is a beauty to the rhythms of life here. Jarmusch is an expert to finding the beauty in the mundane. But, as mundane as Jarmusch wants to make the environment of Paterson, he can’t help but populate it with quirky indie film characters that lend an air of “this isn’t real life in the rest of the world” to the film. I think in some ways it sabotages what he’s trying to do and for me it diminished the enjoyment of the film. Why can’t films about ordinary people actually have a few ordinary people in them?

Driver is a bit white bread here. He doesn’t really distinguish himself much which is likely what Jarmusch had in mind. Paterson (the bus driver) is basically a pretty nice guy without much ambition; his poetry is amazing (written by real life poet and Pulitzer prize winner Ron Padgett) but he refuses to publish them. He clings to them like a lap bar on a particularly scary roller coaster and when near the end of the film an event occurs that puts that to paid, it feels like it should be more liberating than it is. Or at least more traumatic than it seems.

I’m not really quite sure what to make of Paterson (the movie). On the one hand it achieves the “all about nothing” that the Seinfeld show aspired to. On the other, it definitely succumbs to indie film clichés. On a third hand, it plays as a cinematic tone poem, analogous to the works of Williams and T.S. Eliot. There’s beauty here but Jarmusch makes it oddly humorless, although there are occasional twitches of the lips that approximate smiles. It’s an elegant movie that’s not completely successful but is completely worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a cinematic tone poem.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters inhabit Paterson’s world.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Driver undertook training to drive the bus for three months in Queens; he passed is licensing test a week before shooting started and was able to drive the bus himself, allowing Jarmusch to get a broader amount of options in shooting the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mike and Molly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Country: Portraits of an American Sound

Nuts!


Does this man look completely nuts to you?

Does this man look completely nuts to you?

(2016) Documentary (mTuckman) Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski, Fran Taylor, Pope Brok, Gene Fowler, Dr. James Reardon, Megan Seaholm, Dr. John R. Brinkley, John R. Brinkley, Jr. Directed by Penny Lane

 

Our need to believe can sometimes push us beyond the bounds of reason. We often feed our own belief systems with that which makes no logical sense, but because it jives with what we want to believe, we accept it as fact. That’s nothing new, as the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley will attest.

John R. Brinkley arose from the tiny town of Milford, Kansas (a town which ironically no longer exists as it sits at the bottom of a reservoir today) when a local farmer complained that his sexuality was something of a “flat tire.” Brinkley suggested that he, as the town’s local doctor, transplant goat testicles into the farmer and voila! Nine months later the formerly flat tire was, as they say, fully inflated and no longer shooting blanks.

The good doctor quickly became a wealthy man as people from all over the country began to flock to his Milford hospital for the transplantation of their own. Results were, to say the least, startling. Dr. Brinkley also became one of the first to use mass media to his advantage, establishing a 5,000 watt radio station in Milford which not only broadcast the doctor’s health-related screeds but also became the first station in the country to broadcast country music.

Brinkley had it all back then, in the 1910s and 1920s; wealth, a wife who adored him, a bright-eyed son he called Johnny-Boy, a palatial manor, private airplanes and yachts and as the 1930s rolled in, the attention of a crusading journalist for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Morris Fishbein went after Brinkley with a vengeance, claiming that the good doctor was a quack. He would see to it that Brinkley’s license to practice medicine was revoked as well as his license to operate a radio station.

Undeterred, the gadfly of a doctor ran for the governor of Kansas and might have won but for ballots that had been voided under shady circumstances. Eventually, Dr. Brinkley discovered a pharmaceutical solution to impotence and men were once again lining up to recapture the virility they once had. It was Viagra before Viagra was Viagra. And not content with reaching a portion of the country, Dr. Brinkley constructed a million watt radio station in Mexico that would beam his message to the entire country. Once again, Dr. Brinkley was riding high…and we all know what happens to people who ride high.

Director Penny Lane, who previously gave us Our Nixon, a look at the former president through the home videos of those around him, has done a masterful job here. In a short 79 minutes she deftly weaves the tale of Dr. Brinkley through archival footage, animated recreations and a very limited use of talking heads. However, she makes the most of the interview footage as she uses historians with specific specialties – James Reardon for the history of Kansas, Megan Seaholm for the history of medicine and the AMA and Gene Fowler for the history of radio. All contribute important background for the story.

The animation is done by several different studios and starts out in black and white as the early days of Brinkley’s rise are illustrated and gradually shifts to color as we enter the 1930s and beyond. The graphics are generally simple and sometimes crudely drawn but they suit the subject nicely and are a welcome addition to the narrative, although some of the animations are occasionally not as powerful in illustrating the story as they might be.

The interesting thing here is that Lane credits the self-aggrandizing biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood in 1934 and commissioned by Brinkley himself. In that sense, we see Brinkley through Brinkley’s own eyes and there’s a peculiar fascination there; it really is in car wreck territory in a lot of ways. And we eventually learn that we are not hearing the absolute truth from Brinkley and as the story unravels, our perceptions are forced to change radically, showing Lane to be a masterful storyteller and illustrating vividly that the need to believe rests in us as well.

The tone of the film has a bit of a cornpone edge to it and those documentary purists who want their true stories set to a serious tone, this might be a bit vulgar. Believers in alternative medicine may shudder at some of the things that are illustrated here and might take offense if they choose to believe that the film is an indictment of alternative medicine in general (it’s not).

This is a story as American as apple pie and while it was big news back in the day, it is barely a blip on our historical radar. Few today remember Brinkley and if they do, it’s more for his pioneering use of radio than for his various treatments of impotence. His is also a cautionary tale; as the narrative changes and we realize what is really going on, we are given graphic evidence of how easily manipulated we all are. In an age where anyone can say anything on the Internet and present it as fact and be believed by millions, we are far more vulnerable to the John R. Brinkleys of the world than we were even back then and that’s a frightening thought.

REASONS TO GO: An American tale in every sense of the word. A pervasive sense of humor that is almost subversive. The change in tone near the end is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too goofy for purists. Alternative medicine practitioners may cringe a little. Some of the images are ineffective.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual dialogue and suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the special jury award at Sundance for documentary editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Informant (2012)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: X-Men: Apocalypse

Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

Chely Wright: Wish Me Away


Chely Wright: All-American girl.(2011) Documentary (First Run) Chely Wright, Stan Wright, Rodney Crowell, Russell Carter, Rosie O’Donnell, Christopher Wright, Cherie Combs, Don Cusic, Natalie Morales, Chuck D. Waiter, Jennifer Archer, Welton Gaddy, Howard Bragman, Blair Garner, Meredith Vieira, Tony Brown, Richard Sterban, Charlene Daniels. Directed by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf

I am not a big fan of country music; it’s nothing against those who play it or those who listen to it, it’s just that the music doesn’t connect with me in the same way rap doesn’t connect with me. I’m a rock and roll boy, plain and simple, but I do respect country for many reasons; it’s songwriting in most cases stripped down to the essentials, telling stories and making characters that live and are relatable to a vast audience.

More important in my opinion is the relationship between the musicians and the fans. Now, country music fans are no more rabid than fans of other musical genres when it comes to loving their appointed obsessions, but it is from the other direction that the true magic happens. The performers of no other genre appreciate their fans as much as those in country music overall. Despite the often cutthroat nature of the business end of country music (which is the same as in other genres), the performers tend to reflect traditional American values. It’s what their fans expect.

Given that the majority of country music listeners tend to lean politically to the right (ask the Dixie Chicks about that sometime), it was virtually unthinkable that any artist would come out as gay. There is a very strong fundamentalist Christian element in not only the fan base of country music but also in the music itself, which very much espouses Christian values and patriotic pride. In many ways, country music is the most quintessentially American music there is. In it is the optimism, the pride and the attitude that defines us not only to ourselves but to the world.

Chely Wright fit into that world like a glove at first glance. Hailing from mid-Kansas from a religious family, she was blessed with beauty queen looks. A supremely talented singer and songwriter, she burst onto the Nashville scene like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day and took Music City by storm. In time she had hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She was dating Brad Paisley. You’d think she’d be on top of the world.

But she wasn’t. You see, she was harboring a secret – Chely Wright was a lesbian. Her biggest dream in the whole world, ever since she was a little girl, was to be a country music star and she believed that her sexual orientation might keep her from that dream. She resolved at an early age to keep her identity as a lesbian a secret; she would not pursue any intimate relationships with women and in doing so she’d achieve her dream. And achieve it she did.

But the cost was too high. The weight of her secret was a burden too powerful and too heavy to bear and eventually she found herself in front of a mirror with a gun in her mouth. She knew she couldn’t live this way any longer. She would have to stop living this life and come clean, not just for herself but for the many others like her, living with their own lies.

Chely’s coming out had to be handled very delicately and indeed it was. Publicists and marketing personnel sat down with her and orchestrated the campaign. It would be done, as all things in Chely’s life were, with music and in this case, also with a book. It would be a big deal. But before she could tell her fans, she had to tell her biggest fans first – her family.

Berleffi and Kopf were given extraordinary access into Chely’s world for three years leading up to her announcement and the days following it. They spoke with friends, family and fans, sometimes getting some truly moving material, as from her dad, her incredibly supportive sister and her Aunt Char – devout Christians all but also as non-judgmental a group as you’re likely to find.

But most moving of all is Chely’s own video diary, which she kept without the filmmakers knowledge. In it she revealed her most intimate thoughts and feelings, often so raw that you can’t help but cry along with her. When we use the term “courageous artist,” when referring to a singer/songwriter who reveals her most vulnerable side, it was invented for Chely Wright. Her dilemma of her childhood dream versus her identity is a struggle not many straight people may be able to relate to but I am sure a lot of LGBT readers instantly recognize a good deal of what Wright discusses as things and thoughts they went through.

The documentary isn’t breaking new ground in terms of presentation; it’s mainly interviews and archival footage but the video journal elevates this from merely typical and the presence of Ms. Wright herself makes this something special. Throughout you get a sense of her sincerity and her inner light, which you watch being extinguished and then miraculously relit when she finally does come out. Yes, it did cost her some of her fans but a surprisingly large number of them stayed right with her. It turns out that there is a lot more tolerance in the country music fan base than anyone, including Chely Wright herself, first thought. That’s heartening.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright is an impressive and courageous role model. Her video journal excerpts are particularly riveting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The media management is a bit cynical.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic material and a few mild cuss words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theme song for the film, “Shine a Light,” was written and recorded by Wright specifically for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Home video footage of Chely and her wife relaxing at home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18,618 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (download only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Redemption

Country Strong


Country Strong

This is...American Idol!

(2010) Musical Drama (Screen Gems) Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Gabe Sipos, Lisa Stewart Seals, Jackie Welch, Meagan Henderson, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

There is an itch in most of us to be famous, but in some it’s more like a rash. Those in that sad condition can’t ignore it, can’t cure it, can only go about pursuing their obsession in a single-minded manner. Fame, however, shines a spotlight on us that few can bear for very long and when we fall apart, the whole world watches.

That’s what happened to Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar whose bouts with the bottle led to a drunken incident during a Dallas concert which led to a miscarriage. Now in rehab, her husband and manager James (McGraw) is pulling her out a full month early in order for her to embark on a tour to rehab her image. Beau (Hedlund), who is an orderly at her treatment facility and an aspiring singer/songwriter himself (and a good one), is aghast but at Kelly’s insistence he accompanies her on the tour as an opening act and to a certain extent, as a watchdog to make sure she doesn’t drink. He’s more successful at the former than the latter.

Also on the tour is Chiles Stanton (Meester), a former Miss Dallas who has gone from beauty pageants to honky tonks in a single minded pursuit of Nashville glory. Kelly suspects that James is sleeping with Chiles, which is a little bit hypocritical since she has been sleeping with Beau since rehab. And Chiles is sweet on Beau, despite Beau’s disinterest. Yes, everyone sleeps with everyone else except I suspect Beau and James. They probably don’t sleep together. And Chiles and Kelly? In your dreams, pervert.

Kelly, with pressure mounting on her for a comeback, is patently unready for the Texas tour that is going to take her back to Dallas at its conclusion. She worries that she has become too old for her stardom and certainly for her husband who is no longer interested in her romantically but remains her manager nonetheless, shamelessly manipulating his wife. The miscarriage sits between them like the Great Wall of China. She begins to drink again, with devastating consequences.

All of this leads to some pretty public meltdowns that all the spin in the world is going to fail to erase. Can Kelly get her act together and show the world what country strong is all about? Will Chiles get the stardom she so desperately seeks? And will Beau, with his distaste for money, find an audience of his own? Tune in.

Roger Ebert likened this to movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s and I can agree with him there – the elements of A Star is Born are too many to count. Feste doesn’t appear to be out to give us an insider’s view of the country music world; instead, this is a look at the downside of fame, the dark side of ambition and the redemptive power of a really good song.

The three singers all contribute their own vocals, lending more authenticity to the proceedings. Paltrow again delivers, not only vocally but as the fragile singer. Kelly is a woman who was strong once upon a time, but the constant pressure and rootless lifestyle have taken their toll. Now she’s a woman trapped in a marriage that’s unfulfilling, lost in a sea of booze and bad breaks. She latches onto Beau as a life preserver and he’s only too happy to fill that bill.

Hedlund, recently seen in TRON: Legacy, plays the aw-shucks cowboy with a heart on his sleeve nicely. His vocals have a nice timbre, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix assaying Johnny Cash (as a matter of fact, Trace Adkins covers one of Beau’s songs on the end credits). His chemistry with Meester is undeniable (there were rumors that the two had an off-screen romance as a result of the movie that have been denied by both camps) and he makes a good foil for McGraw.

Tim McGraw made his bones as a country singer but he has acting chops as well. He tends to do well with roles that give him more of a strong center to work from, and James Canter has that. He is manipulative yes, but he’s also dedicated and honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing for his wife. There’s a scene late in the movie that has Kelly doing a Make-a-Wish visit to a child’s schoolroom where the two begin to dance together in the classroom, then abruptly James pulls away. It’s one of the best single scenes of his career and shows that if he wanted to carry a movie on his own (which he’s never done), he certainly has the charisma and chops to do it.

The movie stumbles in the very last scene which is a shame because the shameless Hollywood ending counteracts the effectiveness of the movie’s twists and turns in the last reel. Without that one scene, or rather, the appearance of one person at its conclusion, this would have gotten a higher rating from me than it did. That’s how critical a single scene can be to the perception of an entire movie, something aspiring filmmakers would do well to remember.

Country Strong is surprising in that it’s a much better movie than I anticipated it would be, expecting more of a generic country-infused music biz soap opera. While there is some of that in here (particularly in the complex romantic relationships), it is more of a look at the effects of fame on a treasured artist, and the human toll that fame takes. That wasn’t the movie I expected, but I for one am glad it’s the movie I got.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few unforeseen twists in the movie that make it worth viewing. McGraw and Paltrow give fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters of Beau and Chiles a bit cliche. Very last scene blows off goodwill from the movie’s final direction.

FAMILY VALUES: Much of the plot involves the results of alcohol and drug abuse; there is also some fairly sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim McGraw, a real-life country star, is the only one of the four leads who doesn’t sing onscreen (he does contribute a duet with Paltrow over the closing credits).  

HOME OR THEATER: The concert sequences work best in a big theater with a big sound system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Dilemma

Beer for My Horses


Beer for my Horses

Toby Keith and compadres contemplate the next Ford truck commercial.

(Roadside Attractions) Toby Keith, Rodney Carrington, Barry Corbin, Claire Forlani, Ted Nugent, Greg Serano, Tom Skerritt, Gina Gershon, Willie Nelson, Carlos Sanz. Directed by Michael Salomon

I’m not the target audience for this movie, not by a long stretch. I’m not a big lover of country music, although I do admire the relationship between the performers and their fans. However, my neck is not nearly red enough to really immerse myself in country culture.

Toby Keith doesn’t have that problem. His neck is as red as the American flag…the white and the blue probably appear elsewhere on his person too. He drives a Ford pickup. He sings songs about drinking and raising hell. Good ol’ boy? Goddamn, he’s a good ol’ MAN. If you shoot him with anything lower than a .45, the bullets just bounce off.

He plays Rack Racklin, a fun-loving Oklahoma sheriff whose girlfriend Cammie (Gershon) has just taken a powder. Don’t worry, though; his ex-girlfriend Annie (Forlani) is back in town and you can tell they’re destined to be together because she’s totally less bitchy than Cammie although their names rhyme, sort of.

Rack arrests Tito Garza (Serano), a Mexican drug kingpin who has been bringing in meth that is turning the little town into a crap factory. Tito’s brother (Sanz) doesn’t like that much, and kidnaps Annie so that he can trade her for his brother – after which he’ll shoot anything white that isn’t floating in a tequila bottle. Mexicans are ornery that way – just ask Toby Keith.

The sheriff (Skerritt) wants to play it cool but Rack isn’t taking no for an answer. He rounds up his best friend, Deputy Lonnie Feldman (Carrington) and the silent but deadly bowhunter Skunk (Nugent – yes, that Ted Nugent) to head down to Mexico and save the girl. And shoot some Mexicans. For a redneck, that’s a party.

Where do I start? Keith is amiable enough as the lead. Most of the first part of the movie is a light-hearted comedy, but it turns into Rambo about halfway through and more or less stays there until the last scene. The change isn’t particularly smooth and it feels like you’re driving a Ford F-150 with transmission problems on a dirt road with lots of potholes. Once the movie gets to Walking Tall, Keith seems a bit lost as the tough guy.

The comedy is just plain bad. Carrington is actually an excellent performer, but here he seems to have gone to the Hee Haw school of acting and his character of Lonnie seems to have come straight out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazard. I don’t think I even broke a smile at a single joke.

There are some pretty good actors in the movie but one gets the feeling that they took one look at the script, cashed the check as quickly as they could and phoned in their performances. There’s no energy and no life visible anywhere in the movie. It’s just a bunch of actors going through the motions or at least it appeared that way to me. Maybe it was just a bad day, but even Da Queen, normally much more generous to actors than I am, was begging me to turn off the movie.

Nope, I stuck through the whole thing and the strange thing is there really is a movie in here somewhere, just not this one. I think that given the right material, Keith could be a movie star the same as Tim McGraw is now. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right material for anyone. Except for maybe the Nuge. He only gets to say two words (for the record, the two are “Circus Jolly” at the end of the movie) and the rest of the time, he just shoots things with his bow, the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever” coming on every time he cocks his weapon. That’s pretty much how I’ve always imagined Ted Nugent to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Ummm…ummm…I’m thinking…no, that’s not it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor script, poor acting, and poor pacing…it’s just not all that good.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some crude language and humor, brief nudity and a little bit of drug content. Probably safe for most teens and mature kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Oklahoma (and the Jackson County shoulder flashes for the deputies are authentic), the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $666,045 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s safe to say the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Informant!