The ones who succeed mightily are the ones who are the best at it. Period. If they’re not any good, if they have no talent, they aren’t successful.
The great American dream (signified by the incredibly popular “American Idol” television show and all its copycats) is that anyone, anywhere, could step up and prove to us that they have that one-in-a-million-voice. Or, more accurately, that one-in-a-hundred-million voice.
The problem with “Country Strong” is that the one person involved with it who is a proven success as a singer, Tim McGraw, is the one who doesn’t sing, but only acts. And all the others, proven successes as actors, are the ones who do the singing. In football terms, that would be like going into a playoff game letting the All-Pro linebacker play quarterback, the Pro Bowl center play safety, and the league-leading running back play defensive tackle. Yes, you could do that, and it might not be terrible, but your stars are not in their “natural” positions, and chances are, though it might appear to have all the trappings of the real thing, the whole production is going to look like you haven’t put your best team out there.
Gwyneth Paltrow is an Oscar-winning actress (“Shakespeare In Love”). And, she can sing just fine. Her voice is serviceable. It is not, however, a one-in-a-hundred million voice. Same with Garrett Hedlund, a good actor (“Tron: Legacy”) with a boyish grin, who stoops down into the microphone on stage in a kind of “Aw, shucks” way and twangs that deep baritone and looks pretty convincing as a country singer. But he’s not going to win a Grammy. Same with Leighton Meester (“Date Night”), who isn’t quite believable as either a former beauty queen or as an aspiring vocalist. She can carry a tune just fine. But there’s no magic.
Writer/Director Shana Feste (“The Greatest”) has concocted a plot where the aging superstar just out of rehab again (Paltrow) is married to her agent/manager (McGraw). He pulls her out of rehab too soon, thinking that getting back in the saddle would be the best therapy. Besides, she was falling in love with the hired help there (Hedlund). She tries to go back on tour, awkwardly alternating between loyalty to her cuckolded husband, and flirting with the much younger rising star along for the ride (Hedlund). He is flirting with another rising star (Meester), who formerly idolized the aging superstar, but now finds herself in a rivalry with her, not only for music stardom but for a love partner. So, she flirts with the tour manager (McGraw), while Paltrow dallies with … well, never mind.
It’s all kind of sleazy and cheesy. But the music is just professional enough to keep us tapping our toes. As an elongated music video, “Country Strong” works all right, and the convoluted plot could just be chalked up to classic self-destructive, dissolute celebrity behavior.
There will be many people willing to pay good money to see this, but there are cheaper ways to watch country videos (on cable television). In the movies, there are truer stories to be told (“Conviction”), and real country tales (“True Grit”) with better acting. “Country Strong” is neither fish nor fowl, but it tries awfully hard to make you like it, anyway.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.