There's a profound question lurking in this twangy tearjerker: Why is the word strong in its title? Gwyneth Paltrow's crooning character may claim she's hearty, but she's far from it. Is her story?
It's been almost a year since six-time Grammy Award winner Kelly Canter was so drunk during a Dallas concert that she fell off the stage. She was five months pregnant at the time, and the 10-foot fall—not to mention her dangerously high blood alcohol level—resulted in miscarriage. Her husband and manager, James, is distant, resentful … and brokenhearted as he alternately prods her to perform and tries to pick up her pieces.
He pulls her out of rehab a month early to get "back on the horse," lining up a three-city comeback tour that culminates in the very city Kelly lost her baby. Kelly insists that Beau—a musician moonlighting at the rehab center—open for her. And James insists that a young beauty queen named Chiles shares the stage too. Turns out that while Kelly's developed a sexually fueled crush on Beau, both James and Beau are starting to see more in Chiles than just another pretty face.
It's clearly time for Kelly to have another meltdown.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Overall, the importance of love is emphasized—though not always well demonstrated. His motives are mixed, clearly, but Beau does try to protect Kelly from James' tendency to overextend her schedule and physical capabilities. It might be said that Beau's brief moment of conscience with Kelly is positive. After the two have sex (it's implied), he wonders aloud if maybe their affair isn't the best thing for her. (His final solution? To run straight into Chiles' arms.)
Kelly goes through with a Make-a-Wish appearance despite the fact that James tells her she shouldn't bother since her career is already washed up. Her visit to a terminally ill boy's classroom is both powerful and sweet as she sings to him and scoops him up to dance with him.
This scene is the centerpiece in a series of scenes devoted to showing us that Kelly simply can't live with the fact that she hurt her unborn baby. The ways in which she deals with her emotions are the very opposite of positive. But her pain is very, very real. "I always wanted a daughter—I'd treat her like fine china," she says sadly.
About her suffering, Beau says, "She's not crazy. She's the only sane one here."
Kelly tells Chiles not to lie to fans about her past. Beau comes to Chiles' rescue when she freezes onstage. And he correctly—if a bit crudely—proclaims, "Just because they might put them on the radio doesn't mean they're worth a d‑‑n."
Kelly wears a cross necklace for luck, kissing it before each performance. James says he's "not much of a church man," but tells Kelly that when he first heard her sing, he thought "that must be what angels sound like." A promoter tells James that he and others have been praying for Kelly. Chiles says her idols are "Kelly Canter and Jesus Christ."
Both Chiles and Kelly are seen wearing only their bras and panties. Beau and Kelly are seen wearing only towels after an implied romp. Beau initiates a "swimsuit competition" with Chiles, and both strip to their underwear. Women wear short and very low-cut dresses. In a tavern, Kelly briefly simulates a pole dance while standing on the bar. Some of her dance moves onstage are sexualized.
Kelly tries to reach out to her husband sexually by hinting about her bikini wax. He turns her down. She tells Beau not to sleep with anyone but her during the tour. She "fixes" a problem with a promoter by attempting to sleep with him. Couples kiss and caress passionately, and it's implied several times that they have sex. One scene shows bare backs and sides in dim light. A bandmate tells Beau and Chiles to sleep together and just "get it over with." Beau says he was sleeping with Chile's friend.
A few innuendoes wink at arousal and sex. So do songs. "Give In to Me" suggests a little more than just falling into someone's arms. And during her last concert, Kelly sings, "If you got it, flaunt it/Make the cowboys want it/You got to shake that thing."
Kelly slap-punches James in a drunken rage. James clocks Beau for sleeping with Kelly. Beau belts a concert promoter, pushing him and kicking him off the bus (where he's been fooling around with Kelly). Beau kicks in a locked door (to try to rescue Kelly). Kelly is said to have been arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct. Beau struggles to pry a bottle of alcohol away from her. Then he smashes it against a wall. She receives a bloodied baby doll and cruel note as a before-concert "gift."
She ultimately kills herself by overdosing on her medication. (We see only a glimpse of her still body.)
Crude or Profane Language
More than 15 s-words. That same round number can also be applied to the script's utilization of "h‑‑‑" and inappropriate exclamations of God's name—which is often coupled with "d‑‑n." Christ's name is abused at least four times. "A‑‑" and "a‑‑hole" also get a workout.
Drug and Alcohol Content
While on various prescription medications, Kelly drinks relentlessly. We see her try to perform drunk, disoriented and unstable.
Others drink as well. And many scenes are shot in bars. Alcohol is mentioned (sometimes adoringly) in song lyrics. Chiles says she's going to "drink until he's cute." Beau smokes.
Other Negative Elements
At the top of the list is this: When the story works its way around to Kelly's suicide, it's implied that you should have the right to bow out as gracefully (or not) as you wish.
Beau and Kelly revel in breaking the law when they hitch a ride on a train boxcar. James emotionally blackmails Beau into coming on tour with them, using Kelly as bait.
Drunk, Kelly throws up in a trash can. Chiles jokes about peeing in the "beautiful" tour bus toilet.
This one's a weeper, that's for sure. Sometimes for the right reasons. Other times not so much. Kelly's struggle with alcohol and drugs, mixed as it is with her guilt over causing her baby's miscarriage, will having plenty of folks reaching for their tissues. And while they're doing so, they may even be thinking about how precious life is—before and after birth.
Kelly chooses to throw her own life away in the end, as if somehow two wretched wrongs will make a right. She even leaves us with a romanticized voiceover that tries to convince us that everybody has "got the right" to exit stage left anytime they choose. She's dead wrong. Deep down, we all know that. And even Country Strong's filmmakers know it, because they quickly cut to Beau and Chiles deciding to put real life and real music ahead of fame and that fake stuff they play on country radio.
"Don't be afraid to fall in love," Kelly tells Chiles right before she dies. "It's the only thing that matters in life. Fall in love with as many things as possible." Then, breaking it down for the younger woman, she says, "Love and fame can't live in the same place—choose love."
In the vein of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, you could commend Country Strong for peeling back the veneer of fame and celebrity, revealing the heartache, abuses and pain that sometimes lay beneath. But you've heard the old joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards, right? You get your dog back, you get your truck back, you get your girl back. This film piles it on so thick that if you threaded it into the projector backwards you wouldn't even get that much back. Maybe just the dog.
You certainly wouldn't get any clear sense of sexual morality back. The heroes in this story sleep together with the calmness and ease of ordering takeout. No regrets. And definitely no diseases. Beau, the coolest country cat around, shows us that fooling around is just part of the game, whether you go over to the dark side of fame and fortune, or whether you choose to walk into the light of small-town honky-tonk obscurity. Either way, casual sex is the one constant that binds all experiences together, we're shown. And that's a message that grates so hard against anything good this tall musical tale has to offer it nearly kicks it right off the stage.