sat 04/02/2023

George & Tammy, Paramount+ review - alcohol, violence and heartache in Nashville | reviews, news & interviews

George & Tammy, Paramount+ review - alcohol, violence and heartache in Nashville

George & Tammy, Paramount+ review - alcohol, violence and heartache in Nashville

Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon reincarnate country music's first couple

Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) stands by George Jones (Michael Shannon)

Some may consider country music to be corny, sentimental and a relic of a forgotten era. If so, this six-part dramatisation of the lives of Tammy Wynette and George Jones is a reminder of how powerful and soulful the best country music can be, fuelled by raw emotions and personal turmoil.

The tumultuous and frequently agonising progress of Jones and Wynette’s relationship was so traumatic that nobody could have dared to make it up, but the series is based on the factual recollections of the couple’s daughter Georgette in her book The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George. It’s a bone-shaking ride featuring alcoholism, domestic violence and drug addiction, and behind the music’s superficial sweetness lies a world of conflict and heartache.

But they say misery loves company, and as Jones himself points out, “nobody wants me happy.” His fans didn’t want to hear him singing cheesy country-pop, much preferring the lovelorn likes of “She Thinks I Still Care” or “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”. If he ended up passed out on the barroom floor, that was all to the good (pictured below, the real George and Tammy).George & Tammy, Paramount+George & Tammy isn’t an easy watch, but it keeps you gripped by the authenticity of its musical interludes and by a pair of towering central performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. When Jones and Wynette married in 1969, it was a third marriage for each of them, and it began (as documented here) with Jones fighting Tammy’s then-husband, songwriter Don Chapel, over the dinner table. When a pregnant Tammy had left her first husband, whom she’d married at 17, her mother forced her to have ECT shock therapy. Meanwhile Jones had got off to a bad start in life thanks to his violent, hard-drinking father, and though his marriage to Wynette initially triggered a period of home-loving sobriety, the demon alcohol was always lurking nearby, ready to make a comeback. We see Jones’s steely, unsentimental record producer Billy Sherrill (David Wilson Barnes) growing increasingly frustrated at the way domestic harmony is blunting the cutting edge of his bestselling artist.

As the episodes unfold, Chastain delivers an absorbing and nuanced portrait of a woman deeply committed to Jones, despite the demons which constantly threaten to drag him back into a whisky bottle or provoke bouts of terrifying gun-toting rage (one especially scary incident ended with Jones tied up in a straitjacket inside a padded cell), but she’s also dedicated to making the most of her huge musical gifts. If Jones goes AWOL and fails to turn up for a show, Tammy will guts it out and do it alone, and never forgets that she owes her status to her fans. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man” – was she being ironic? – were just two of her decades-long list of solo hits.George & Tammy, Paramount+But her life was blighted by the fallout from a botched hysterectomy, which caused her to undergo 27 further operations over the years and left her chronically addicted to painkillers. The relationship with Jones was almost more a co-dependency than a marriage, and we see her going a through a dismal trajectory in which, having divorced Jones, she marries the brutal and manipulative songwriter and producer George Richey (portrayed with flesh-crawling creepiness by Steve Zahn).

Shannon has dug deep to find his portrayal of Jones, and he complements Chastain perfectly – awesomely, the pair did all their own singing, with impressive results. The violent, destructive part of Jones's character is counterpointed by interludes of compassion and generosity, and his tragedy is that he knows what he’s got with Tammy is priceless but he can’t stop it slipping away. At one point Wynette tells him to “go to hell.” “I’ll tell the Devil you sent me,” he retorts.

For all its strengths, the major pitfall of the series is its lack of cultural or historical context. The country music concerts and shots of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry (aka the Ryman Auditorium) ring true, but we never know who the President is, the Vietnam war doesn't impinge on anybody's consciousness, nobody lands on the Moon, and it's like rock music or Star Wars never happened. For that matter, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton don't seem to have happened either. But it's worth waiting for the final episode and the depiction of Jones recording “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, his 1980 comeback chart-topper masterminded by Sherrill. It's almost unbearably poignant and it tells you more about country music than mere words ever could.

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