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Country music is brimming with stories of love and loss, whether in the storytelling lyrics or the famous figures who went on to become legends. George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s romance first captured hearts (and wallets) in the 1960s, and the decades-long collaboration is an emotional roller coaster ripe for the biopic treatment. Ever since “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” accurately lampooned this genre, it has made it more challenging to portray the real figures. While “George & Tammy” certainly has some of those tropes, it is also a rich depiction that rises above cliches to deliver a searing portrait of two figures whose legacy is worth singing—and writing—about.
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Jessica Chastain only recently picked up her first Oscar for playing another famous Tammy, but this is not a case of retreading old ground. Instead, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” screenwriter Abe Sylvia’s second foray into the musical biopic genre is more satisfying, in part, because he doesn’t have to speed through careers spanning 30 years across two hours. Wynette’s rise to fame also features scandal and a tumultuous partnership; however, thoughts of Tammy Faye will quickly leave your mind during the first episode when George and Tammy’s paths collide.
Capturing a romance that led to the defining “Stand by Your Man” (a song rattling around my head for days) and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” requires two equally matched leads. Michael Shannon more than meets this challenge as country music’s hard-drinking wild man, George Jones. His predilection for whisky and women, and his reluctance to perform for his thousands of fans, are established immediately, with Shannon embodying the messy side of this character. Playing it too broad, and it could lean toward Dewey Cox, but Shannon deftly walks the line (pun not intended) between the rebellious persona fans can’t get enough of and the quiet man who resides beneath the surface.
The acting duo first worked together as husband and wife in the 2011 psychological thriller “Take Shelter.” Here they get to craft a relationship from its inception. The back-and-forth banter later woven into their act is evident in their first conversation. Tammy’s career hasn’t taken off, whereas George is teetering on the edge of decline. Together they will be dynamite, and it is easy to see why “A Star is Born” continues to resonate when so many versions of this dynamic unfold in real life. Without chemistry, this portrayal would quickly fizzle. Thankfully, Chastain and Shannon are magnetic whether on stage or without prying eyes on them.
Before Tammy became a singer, she went to cosmetology school, providing an opportunity for intimate hair-washing scenes. During this first conversation away from the backstage noise, Chastain and Shannon establish a connection between these characters that goes beyond sexual attraction or professional intrigue. It is playful and flirty, simultaneously underscoring Tammy’s recurring worry that as a “girl singer,” she has to maintain an image of perfection to keep her dream alive.
Scandal makes a hero out of George; it is a potential death knell for Tammy. It often feels like Tammy keeps saying yes to everything because she worries about what will happen when the world catches up to her secrets. Sylvia’s exploration of these double standards is occasionally labored and doesn’t require dialogue to remind the audience that only Tammy’s actions have consequences. Chastain’s performance alone is a reminder of this tightrope walk.
The initial hair-washing scene offers a quiet moment for the pair to get to know each other and underscores George’s vanity. In fact, it is refreshing to see the series reflect on how much effort goes into crafting an aesthetic for a man—even if his attitude projects that he doesn’t care.
Paying close attention to performance attire isn’t unusual in an industry with a fondness for rhinestones; however, George also sartorially flexes during personal triumphs. There are not enough words to explain how delightful it is to hear George explain that he purposely matched the avocado in his shirt to his tie and pants at the birth of his daughter. Costume designer Mitchell Travers (who also designed “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) nails these rich details while capturing Wynett’s on-and off-stage glamour.
George’s insecurities about how a non-country crowd perceives him showcase his complicated relationship with fame, which is at odds with how Tammy pushes aside her physical and mental well-being to keep to every scheduled event and obligation. Tammy does it to survive, yet the series doesn’t ignore her ambition and desire to retain her first lady of country music crown.
Celebrity relationships are a big draw, and what makes this enduring-yet-complicated duo fascinating is how music binds them in both a manufactured and authentic fashion. Going into this series, I only knew the broadest brushstrokes of this particular story, and several turns took me by surprise (to the point where I gasped aloud). The business side keeps creeping in, which ruptures and then repairs: it is a ride neither can ever truly leave.
Director John Hillcoat (“The Road,” “Lawless”) offers the audience front-row seats to public performances and workshopping lyrics in the recording studio. Given the director’s impressive music video and documentary credentials, it is not surprising that each performance is enthralling—whether in front of thousands of fans or a handful of sound engineers. Blending close-up handheld footage with wide shots captures the scale without losing proximity.
Chastain and Shannon sing throughout the series, elevating the performances and deepening their chemistry. Sharing a microphone is when this couple is happiest; watching this journey from the first track to the last is electrifying (a total of 31 songs are used throughout). It is also where they navigate a spectrum of raw, tender, vulnerable, and playful emotions, allowing both actors to dig deep. Meanwhile, George’s temperament swings wildly at home, creating a pressure cooker atmosphere. Shannon utilizes the Donald Duck impression—a natural part of the George tapestry—that further heightens the fraught mood rather than being a cute party trick.
Growing up in this intense environment with both parents battling addiction under the glaring spotlight of fame informs the overall perspective. Sylvia adapted the series from “The Three of Us,” a 2013 memoir by the couple’s daughter Georgette Jones. Tammy’s issues with substance abuse stem from medical care, and this is another example of the long history of prescribed painkillers’ grip on those seeking treatment. The stigma surrounding mental health and the shame Tammy tries to suppress are intrinsic to this story. These details benefit from this being a six-part series rather than a movie—as it was initially envisioned.
Chastain projects fragility and toughness; Shannon can be equally terrifying and tender. It is very much their rodeo. Supporting characters like Nashville songwriter and producer George Richey (Steve Zahn) and George’s confidant Peanutt (Walton Goggins) don’t get much to do in early episodes, but this shifts in the latter half of the limited series. Zahn is fantastic in a layered role that goes to some unexpected places, and Kelly McCormack, as his wife Sheila, stands out in emotionally charged scenes.
One time jump is a tad abrupt, but on the whole, the pacing reflects the tempestuous collaboration that initially propelled Tammy into the country music stratosphere and cultural icon status. Some themes of being taken advantage of are hammered home more than necessary, but the heart of the story is firmly in the palm of Chastain and Shannon’s hands. Whether showcasing the good or bad times, “George & Tammy” is a triumph. [A-]