Saturday, December 03, 2022

George & Tammy, on Showtime

George Jones and Tammy Wynette had a relationship that was sort of like A Star is Born, but slightly less tragic, which is sort of ironic, since they are the country version. They had some huge hits together, but they couldn’t stay married. Yet, that old spark never totally went away, musically or romantically. Even if you are not fans, you will recognize their drama and some of their songs in Abe Sylvia’s six-episode George & Tammy, directed by John Hillcoat, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

George Jones was already the biggest act in country music and prone to self-destructive behavior when hired Tammy Wynette to open for him. He was starting to slip on the charts, but she was still crazy about his music. She also fell for him, even though she was still married to her manager, songwriter, and general coattail-rider Don Chapel. Nevertheless, Jones whisked her off her feet and literally carried her out of the house she bought for Chapel.

Before too long, we see Jones’ drinking problem and the violent anger it brought out in him. Soon thereafter, Wynette develops her own addictions issues with pills, following a botched operation. However, there are also good times. Unlike, bio-films like
What’s Love Got to Do with It, we totally see why Jones and Wynette fell for each other and why they kept getting back together, albeit in more limited ways, after their divorce.

George & Tammy
follows a similar arc as so many previous music biographies (from Eastwood’s Bird to Luhrmann’s Elvis), but that really isn’t Sylvia’s fault. The facts are the facts. Blame the music industry and maybe to some extent the media. In this case, he manages to humanize his subjects to a remarkable extent. Partly, this is because his primary source was the book written by Georgette Jones, the power couple’s daughter.

It is also impossible to overstate the importance of the two leads, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, who bear a decent visual resemblance to the performers and have surprisingly strong singing voices. They really land those tunes, which often serve as a dramatic climax to each episode. (Weirdly, Shannon also made a compellingly off-kilter Elvis Presley in
Elvis & Nixon.)

Frankly, Chastain and Shannon shine so bright, everyone else gets lost, including Walton Goggins as Peanut, Jones’ former bandmember, who becomes a sympathetic Baptist preacher, and Steve Zahn, portraying Wynette’s sleazy fifth husband (Jones was the third and Sylvia skips over the brief fourth). Frankly, the only thesp that makes any sort of impression, whose name isn’t Shannon or Chastain, would be Pat Healy, playing Wynette’s sleazy second husband, Chapel.

Yes, this sure is a country story, isn’t it? Yet, it carries the logo of MTV Entertainment Studies, which shows how meaningless the MTV brand has become. It is hard to imagine the MTV of my youth even remotely associated with country, especially that of Jones and Wynette, but to their credit, Sylvia and Hillcoat treat the music with respect.

After watching the mini-series, viewers will understand where the performers came from, how they became who they were, and forgive them for their faults. The audience might largely be limited to traditional country fans, but Chastain and Shannon have a number of scenes together that really are quite powerful. Highly recommended for fans of the music and the thesps,
George & Tammy premieres tomorrow on Showtime.