"Country Strong," out in theaters today (Jan. 7), represents an odd amalgamation of entertainment genres. Pop stars Britney Spears and Michael Jackson inspired the film's heartbreaking theme, fleshed out by Gwyneth Paltrow, who is cast as fallen singer Kelly Canter. Meanwhile, country star Tim McGraw portrays Canter's manager/husband and sings just one song: a duet with Paltrow.
Writer/director Shana Feste wrote the bulk of the screenplay in 2008, moved by the personal drama Spears was experiencing in the public forum. Jackson's 2009 death occurred as she was finishing the script.
"We build these artists up and celebrate them," Feste says. "Then at the first sign of weakness, we rally around their downfall. Then we want to build them back up for a comeback. How difficult to live life like that in public."
Born in the California beach community of Palos Verdes, Feste also spent summers on her father's Texas ranch after her parents divorced. That background helped her meld the arc of a Hollywood starlet with the dusty realities of America's heartland.
Video: "Country Strong" movie trailer
"Country music still focuses on storytelling which, as a writer, is so important to me," Feste says. "The themes that country music deals with-love, heartbreak, betrayal-those are right up my alley as a drama director."
Music remains at the heart of the "Country Strong" storyline. More than 50 songs are heard in the film, including performances by Paltrow and fellow actors Leighton Meester -- an artist signed to Universal Republic who plays a former pageant queen with a dynamic set of pipes -- and Garrett Hedlund, whose gruff vocal qualities represent an alt-country vibe. They're presented along with new recordings by Sara Evans, Chris Young & Patty Loveless, Ronnie Dunn and Hank Williams Jr. All of these artists appear on the RCA soundtrack that arrived Oct. 26. Debuting at No. 16 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, the soundtrack is now No. 37. It has sold 38,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The film also incorporates spoken references to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, plus sonic airings of such classics as Roger Miller's "Chug-a-Lug," Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues" and Don Gibson's "Sea of Heartbreak."The actors worked with established Nashville producers-Byron Gallimore (McGraw, Sugarland), Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift) and Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert)-who helped them gain a level of credibility within the genre.
"It speaks very well to our actors that their performances seemingly are on par with our established artists," music supervisor Randall Poster says. "The quality control is really good."
RCA released Paltrow's title song as a single in July, allowing it a long lead time to build awareness of the movie and her character. The track moves 36-35 on Hot Country Songs this week.
"It's good to give people time to discover a movie like this-a complex, relationship-based movie-through screenings and talking about it as they connect the song with the movie," Paltrow says.
"There's a competitive streak in her which, as a promotion person, I certainly enjoy," RCA Nashville VP of national promotion Keith Gale says. "We've all heard stories about artists who say, 'Hey, anything I can do?' Then when it comes time to do, they do not. I can honestly say that Gwyneth Paltrow has said repeatedly 'Anything I can do?' and has followed through."
In the end, the jumble of pop inspirations, Hollywood film stars and country grit is an appropriate metaphor for the tale of music and celebrity that Feste envisioned. "I wanted to present these characters as messy, complicated and conflicted because that's what's real to me," she says. "I don't have a good guy, and I don't have a bad guy. Everybody is flawed."