The much-anticipated Country Strong movie doesn't open until Dec. 22 in Los Angeles and Nashville and January 7 in the rest of the nation. So, by normal standards, it'd be a little early to be having a splashy premiere. But experience shows that if you can tie anything country-related to the highly rated CMA Awards, you should... which is how it came to be that, two nights prior to the ceremony and almost two months prior to the national release, the studio debuted their film in front of hundreds of Nashville luminaries at the Green Hills Cinemas, with leading actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, and Leighton Meester leading the red carpet brigade. And Our Country was on the scene.
Before the screening, though he hadn't yet seen the film, guest Luke Bryan expressed great faith in McGraw's ability to keep things real in a film centered around several fictional country music singers. "With Tim's involvement," said Bryan, "I imagine he was stepping in and going, 'Hey, guys, it don't go this way.'"
But when I asked McGraw if folks were depending on him to be the arbiter of authenticity, he laughed and shrugged off the role of technical advisor, saying he was more concerned with his primary role as an actor.
"I didn't really look at it as being 'authentic'," he told me. "I don't think that that ever really crossed my mind that much--that it was authentic. For me, it was about how rich the characters were. Of course, as the movie's going on, every now and then you would catch something that you might want to (say something about). But you didn't want to overdo that, either. I think if you just stay concentrated on how good the characters were, that other stuff just found its way."
When Paltrow came down the carpet, I asked her how it was dueting with McGraw on the film's closing theme, "Me and Tennessee."
"We didn't record at the same time—thankfully," she told me. Thankfully? "I didn't have to sing in front of him, which would have been very nerve-wracking." Ah. "But it's a beautiful song, and I love it, so I'm really happy with how it turned out."
And what did she think of "A. Martin," the writer of that song, as a country tunesmith? "Pretty amazing," she said with a laugh. "A. Martin" is not just any Martin—it's husband Chris Martin, of Coldplay, of course. (He also co-produced the track.) About a decade ago, Martin had penned the song "Til Kingdom Come" in hopes that Johnny Cash would record it, though that was never to be. I asked Paltrow if Martin was gratified that she had fulfilled his dream of having one of his country songs recorded in Nashville. But she was refusing to own up to who "A." really is. "I can't comment! It's all a mystery!" she said, giggling.
There was another "A-word" that came up a lot at the premiere, and this one had nothing to do with Chris Martin.
"That's a big question on this carpet, for sure: Authenticity," said writer-director Shana Feste. But she thought of that concept not so much as having to do with the truthfulness of the music-biz milieu as it did with the musical performances. "I think that was very important to all of us," Feste said. "When we were first casting this movie, people were saying, 'You don't really need actors that can sing. We can revoice them. No one will really even notice.' How horrifying! That's the least authentic thing i can imagine doing, making a movie about country music and not being able to use the actors' real voices. So I was lucky enough to get Gwyneth, Leighton, and Garrett (Hedlund), all of whom have incredible voices."
If you didn't hear the director mention McGraw in that category, there's a reason for that: Among the film's four principal characters, he's the only one who doesn't sing. He plays the calm, long-suffering husband and manager of Paltrow's character, an alcoholic and pill-popper who leaves rehab early to go back on the road. While she was receiving treatment, she had an affair with Garrett Hedlund's orderly character, who's also an ace singer/songwriter built from a more rugged and independent mode. He ends up being one of her opening acts on tour—the other being Meester's somewhat dim-seeming country-pop diva-in-training. There are roughly equal levels of sexual attraction and antagonism between both sets of males and females in this equation, before the question of whether or not Paltrow is "country strong" is dramatically settled.
In the recent film Crazy Heart, as good as the music was, it didn't often bear a strong relation to the types of sounds that are usually heard on country radio today. On that one, T Bone Burnett said that he wanted the songs to come from an alternate universe of country, where maybe things had branched off from the '70s outlaw movement and that had become the norm. But director Fente wanted the soundtrack of the movie to exist very much in the known country universe.
That included allowing for several different styles on the soundtrack. "Each character in the film sings a different type of country," she explained. That country has many different subgenres "is one thing that I discovered by being here. Garrett is more of a singer/songwriter; I picture him more like outlaw Texas country. And Leighton sings a more pop country music that might be heard more on the radio. So these different types of country are all reflected, and we used three different Nashville producers to produce each one of their sounds."
McGraw told me years ago that he didn't want to do any movies that capitalized on or road the coattails of his success as a country star. He had even wavered over doing Flicka, just because he was wary of making a movie where he might have to wear a cowboy hat. And he certainly wasn't ever about to make a "country music movie"...
"And here I am!" he laughed. "At first I did not want to do it. I said no a couple of times. But I loved the script. It's so hard to capture the heart and soul of country music, but it was written from a perspective that was more character-driven than it was music-driven. And very rarely in these kinds of movies does one not let the other down. Either the music's really good and the characters are not, or the characters are really good and the music's not. In this case, they enhanced each other so much, and when the actors started their singing, it just made everything better."
Did it help that, even though it's a country movie, he's not playing a singer (his vocal appearance over the end credits notwithstanding)? "Oh yeah!" But he qualified his earlier remarks. "Not that I wouldn't ever do that. I mean, I was probably just saying I wouldn't. I thought, if you don't want other people to take your singing as a crutch or a hindrance in saying why you can't be an actor, then you shouldn't do it. But I'm not going to ay that I would never play a singer, because then I'm doing the same (strict categorizing) I don't want other people to do to me. I've got to look at it as an actor and see if it's something I would be good at. I would play that if it was the right thing."
Casting directors, take note: After years of studiously avoiding singer roles on screen, McGraw just might be ready for his vocal closeup after all.
How will the film go over? Reviews are embargoed at this point, for journalists getting an early peek at the film. We can tell you that if you're looking for a peek into the way Music Row works, this isn't that kind of movie: There are barely any references at all to the business part of the music industry—in other words, no conniving record- label executive characters (though there is one particularly unscrupulous concert promoter). It's a film in which a superstar takes a couple of unsigned acts out as opening acts on her arena tour... and instead of playing to mostly empty seats, these unknowns play to full houses who appreciate clap along to their songs. But if the movie isn't 100% music-industry verisimilitude, and doesn't attempt to be, there were some lines that got knowing laughs from the audience.
In one exchange, Leester asks Hedlund how she looks. "Like a country Barbie," he says, barely disguising his disgust. "Thank you!" she responds, delighted. Later in the film, Hedlund, the voice of integrity in the plot, tells Meester that "just because it's on the radio don't make it good"—a line that got a slow wave of laughter (knowing, nervous, or otherwise) from an audience full of country radio big-shots.
Just be forewarned that there is some rough stuff in the film—nothing explicit, but it's full of what are sometimes called adult situations. Paltrow's addictive character makes the one Ronee Blakely played 35 years ago in Robert Altman's Nashville look like the model of mental stability. And there's just enough unfaithfulness along the way that you might have paused to wonder how these very PG-13 scenarios were going over with all the Make-a-Wish children who got to attend the premiere and walk the red carpet. Don't try these relationships at home, kids!
If you can't wait till January to see how Paltrow acquits herself as a country singer, the soundtrack is out now, and the actress will perform the title song on the CMAs with Vince Gill. (Or "A. Gill," as we like to call him.)