Country music frames a new romantic drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a Nashville diva trying to come back after personal tragedy sidetracks her career. Here's a look at Country Strong.
"Nashville's Kelly Canter left rehab early this morning. You remember the country music star was arrested a few months ago for drunk and disorderly conduct."
"I feel okay, thanks."
"Kelly, do you have anything else to say to your fans?"
"I love you all. Thanks for coming out."
Kelly Canter is a star in trouble. After a drunken onstage fall that causes her to suffer a miscarriage, she sinks into a haze of depression and substance abuse.
"Do you care about Kelly? This is her last opportunity to turn things around."
Her husband and manager James, played by real-life country star Tim McGraw, is determined to revive Kelly's career, even though the tragic events have irreparably broken their marriage. Gwyneth Paltrow says she was drawn to, but also afraid of playing the damaged diva.
"I did feel fear at the beginning just because this character was in such a different place and was so different from me in so many ways," admits Paltrow. "But also I just didn't know how to do a lot of the things that she does, like play guitar and be addicted to pills and alcohol. There were so many things that I felt trepidation about taking on and doing believably. It was a big job for me. I've never prepared so much for anything and I was nervous when we started.
Garrett Hedlund, on screen recently as the young lead of Tron: Legacy, co-stars as Beau, who comes into Kelly's life as a staff member at the rehab clinic. An aspiring singer-songwriter, he moonlights playing his songs at a local honky-tonk bar. Hedlund says it took months of practice and study to gain the confidence it takes to get on stage and sing for an audience.
"It was all day every day listening to country [music] and getting every inflection of every song down," Hedlund says. "That makes it easier, I guess, but to be in the studio and sing the song week after week you find where it works and try to ride that wave. When you see that people are enjoying it, you enjoy it and you enjoy everything."
Leighton Meester, a co-star of the TV hit Gossip Girls, plays Chiles, a young beauty queen who idolizes superstar Kelly and hopes to follow in her footsteps.
The only key member of the cast with real country music experience is Tim McGraw, who does not sing a note as Kelly's husband-manager. A critic of most Hollywood movie versions of the music world, McGraw says the attempt at authenticity in Country Strong won him over.
"It's a movie, so nothing is dead on, but I think what is really authentic is the music as it relates to each character," McGraw says. "I think that a lot of times in these films you can have really great music, but the characters kind of fall short or the storyline falls short so you don't believe that these characters can support that music; or, vice-versa, you can have these beautiful characters and story and then the music hits and you think 'there's no way that this music is really good enough in the real world to sustain these characters.' I think in this particular case you have really great characters who you get emotionally invested in and you really want to see what happens to them; and then you have this great music that you can believe, in the sort of fantasy world of this movie, that this music could create these people who want to be stars or this person who is a star or it could propel this guy to be a star."
Texas-born Shana Feste wrote and directed Country Strong and says for the story to work the audience has to believe the characters really are in that music world.
"The most important thing when I was casting this movie was that I found actors who could sing," explains Feste. "That was most important. I just didn't want to revoice anyone. I thought it was so cheesy and if you're going to make a movie about country music and you want it to be authentic you have to use the actors' real voices. What we ended up doing was the mikes were always live and we ended up, in the editing room, incorporating a lot of their live performance into their pre-recordings …just so it sounded like they were really performing at these venues. "
Country Strong was filmed on location in and around Nashville, Tennessee and many of the extras and background performers are real musicians, technicians and reporters who work in that capital city of American country music.