Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) stars as washed up country singer/megastar Kelly Canter in Country Strong; beginning the movie in rehab for alcoholism (which caused her to take a nose-dive off a stage in Dallas a year before the events of the movie, and lose the baby with which she was five months pregnant), but being released within minutes to embark on a supposedly epic comeback tour, that could make or break her career.
She was pulled out of rehab a month early by her, now distant, manager/husband James (country legend Tim McGraw), who brings along Kelly’s lover Beau (Garret Hedlund, Tron: Legacy); a gifted and aspiring young country singer himself; and a former beauty queen (who he hires simply because he wants to bed) named (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl); who one days hopes to be as big a star as Kelly, and can write great lyrics, but often freezes up on stage.
Along the road to Dallas (the final date on Kelly’s tour; included to ensure her comeback is that little bit more dramatic, and proves that she is finally over her alcohol addiction), we then watch as Kelly battles her past (with unpleasant ‘gifts’ reminding her of her transgressions, stinging media reports, and the lack of emotion she receives from her husband), confronts and often succumbs to her addictions (even to the point of throwing shows), and tries to figure out which way her life is heading; should she try and stick with the kind hearted Beau, or hope her husband dumps the floozy and comes back to her?
But it’s the love triangle (which is actually more of a love square, with a cross through it) that actually forms the heart of the film (to a backdrop of old and new country songs), and like likely leave viewers just as confused as the characters, as to where they want these people to end up; should Kelly give in to Beau, should James leave Kelly, or should Beau and (who despite bickering in the beginning,start to grow closer on the tour) just run away with one another, and leave the mess that is Kelly Canter behind them?
While we know Gwyneth Paltrow can act (and she does well here, yet not nearly as well as Jeff Bridges played essentially the same character in Crazy Heart), there’s been a great deal of talk about her singing ability (started thanks to this movie, her appearances on Glee, and the fact they’ve now earned her a record deal offscreen), and the fact is she can sing, and she can sing well; she might not be up to the standard of Dolly Parton or Carrie Underwood, but belts out a tune like it’s no effort at all during the film’s main show (not like when her addictions ruin the music); and is more than believable as a country superstar (thanks in large part to her looks).
But forget Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund is the real star of Country Strong (in more ways than one), and while his performance also isn’t as strong as Jeff Bridges’ in Crazy Heart (in part due to the decidedly average scriptwriting), he’s clearly headed in that direction, and handles both the dramatic parts of his role, and the country singing (complete with the country-look that makes him nigh on unrecognizable from Tron: Legacy), with ease.
Tim McGraw and Leighton Meester also serve their roles well; as while Leigthon could have been replaced by any attractive young model who can just about carry a tune and wear a pair of boots, anyone who doesn’t recognize McGraw will think he’s been acting his whole life, since his performance actually carries weight, and has one or two emotional moments that feel real, and really make you care for the character (no matter how much of an arse he is).
Yet while the acting maybe above average, that doesn’t mean Country Strong is for everyone; it’s much better than your average Hallmark movie, but certainly treads a lot of the same ground; and Crazy Heart it ain’t.
It’s difficult not to compare Country Strong to Crazy Heart as, aside from the big love triangle, they’re essentially telling exactly the same story; following a washed up, alcoholic, country megastar who’s hit bottom,, and is trying to make it back into the big leagues, whilst being surrounded by a truckload of younger talent; yet Country Strong unfortunately loses out to Crazy Heart on every level; it’s not as engaging, the acting’s not as good, the music isn’t as good (a huge factor in a film such as this), and the whole film is generally less powerful.
So if you didn’t like Crazy Heart then you’re not going to like Country Strong (unless sombre love triangles are your thing), and if you did like Crazy Heart, you still might not like Country Strong; it’s a film that verges just a little too closely to Hallmark territory, but features some decent acting and solid musical routines, and is well suited to the Sunday afternoon crowd (being a great example of a film to watch while ironing, or possibly planning a nap), and is worth seeing for Garrett Hedlund’s performance alone (even despite the disappointingly ‘picture-perfect’ ending).
Coming with a fairly warm tone, the 1080p transfer awarded to the Country Strong Blu-ray does veer a little towards the red end of the spectrum; giving everyone a slightly orange, and overly romantic, fleshtone; yet contains some very impressive visuals; with suitably strong levels of fine detail, well rendered textures, and deep and inky black levels that don’t show any signs of giving in to crush; and as it creates a decent sense of depth, and recreates the look of the film fairly accurately, it’s easy for fans to forgive the film’s several noticeable instances of banding.
The best thing about any movie revolving around a superstar singer/songwriter has to be the music, and on that front the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track which brings the Country Strong soundtrack to Blu-ray doesn’t disappoint; during the concert performances the ambient effects are stunning (containing all sorts of whooping and hollering as Kelly comes on stage, with the rear channels belting out all of the crowds cheers, and the sounds of them singing along to the music) and seamlessly bring any viewer right into the concert hall along with the crowd, while subtle the bass is used effectively, and there’s a spacious feel which adds to the mix and creates a truly engrossing listen.
Outside of the large (and smaller) musical numbers there’s unfortunately little in the way of ambient effects, though as Country Strong tends to be a fairly sombre melodrama when the music’s left aside, that doesn’t really matter, because where the track matters; in its dialogue; the audio again doesn’t disappoint; remaining front and centre, and always clear; yet fails to overwhelm, but combines with the musical numbers to create a fun and fairly engaging listen overall.
Country Strong also comes to Blu-ray with a decent number of fan pleasing special features that begin with an alternate ending; which should be worth a watch for any real fan of the film, and is slightly less upbeat than the theatrical ending; a selection of four deleted scenes; which are fairly bland, would have added little to the film, and were rightfully cut; and two music videos; for Country Strong (by Gwyneth Paltrow) and A Little Bit Stronger (by Sarah Evans); which will be a great inclusion for any fan of the films music, but may not be quite as entertaining as the extended performance of “Shake That Thing” (again by Paltrow) from the film’s closing show.
Also included is not only Sony’s MovieIQ (featuring the Country Strong playlist) and a selection of trailers for other movies, but a selection of featurettes which are all a touch promotional, but do feature some behind the scenes footage, and interviews with the cast and crew discussing everything from the others members of the cast and the film’s music, to the costumes, and the director, and make for a selection (when combined with the deleted scenes and music videos) that should easily appeal to fans of the movie.
The Bottom Line:
While Country Strong is essentially another, less successful, re-hash of Crazy Heart; focussing on a down-and-out, alcoholic, country singer who’s trying to make it back to the big time; and falls flat in a number of ways; with the sombre tone, overly cliched nature, and poorly developed characters, making for a less than memorable experience that can leave it feeling a little dull and Hallmarky, rather than excelling as the drama it could have been; it’s still not a terrible watch; thanks mainly to the solid cast (as the acting throughout is more than solid; yet still not up to Crazy Heart’s standards), and the movie’s impressive soundtrack.
The soundtrack is also wonderfully realized by the Blu-ray’s 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio mix, and only complimented by the solid picture quality, and a decent selection of special features that may contain a fairly large chunk of filler, but will nonetheless please any and all Country Strong fans; just as the entire disc will.
Gwyneth Paltrow proves she’s not only a great actress but a great singer, and is joined by the equally impressive Garret Hedlund, and helped along by country legend Tim McGraw in a film that may seem a little dull, and a little predictable, but has a great soundtrack, and should appeal to anyone who enjoys the likes of Crazy Heart, and Walk the Line, yet should probably be rented, rather than blind bought, by any first-timers.