Hollywood loves a couple right now. On screens both big and small, we are seeing the Golden Age of the shared biopic, these true two-handers. From Being the Ricardos to Pam & Tommy, via House of Gucci, Fosse/Verdon and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the most famous actors in the world are being drawn to these dramatic duets. And the latest iteration of this trend has arrived on new streaming platform Paramount+: George & Tammy, the inside story of the rocky marriage of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Those names might not mean a lot to a British audience, but Jones and Wynette are two of the biggest names in country music. During the Sixties and Seventies, they captivated America, both with their wistful songs and with their turbulent private lives. In this series, directed by The Road’s John Hillcoat, Jones is played by Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon and Wynette by Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain, which ought to give some guide to the calibre of the production. This is a handsomely mounted legend of the American South.
“She wanted to be married to George Jones,” George growls in the opening episode. “And then one day she woke up and it dawned on her that she was married to George Jones.” George & Tammy could be seen as a slow, six-part waking up. Shannon is a great physical performer, stumbling about somewhere between aggression and awkwardness. “You sound like a preacher,” Tammy tells him. “Drunk as one too.” Chastain, meanwhile, is coming off the back of her Oscar-winning depiction of Tammy Faye (her quest to play every famous Tammy continues next year with the live-action Tamagotchi movie). Here she’s an all-American train wreck, depicting the million-watt smile and the dope fiend equally convincingly.
Your enjoyment of George & Tammy will, ultimately, rest on your tolerance for American country music. The show elects not to scrimp on lengthy performances of songs that highlight key dramatic moments: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, for example, plays over the end days of Tammy’s marriage to Don Chapel (Pat Healy), while “Stand By Your Man” is the sound of George’s struggles. When the plucking of guitar strings starts and the warbling comes in, the show switches into a mode of playing to the gallery: which is fine, perhaps, if you’re Elvis or Elton. But George Jones and Tammy Wynette? Will their music find new audiences, or just entertain an already captive one?
The thing about country music – both the songs and the lifestyles of its performers – is that proceedings are conducted at the sort of hysterical intensity that would shame the writers of EastEnders. Tammy’s governing credo is that you “have to live a song to make it good”, and with songs like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and “Run, Woman, Run”, you know what you’re in for. Neither the genre nor this series is interested in snooty, cosmopolitan things like “subtext”: the show is just as big, brash and unsubtle as its protagonists.
“You ain’t perfect,” George tells Tammy during their courtship. “I can hear it in your voice.” That fragility, in the notes that Tammy sings, bleeds into her life story – but that same tremulous edge is absent from the drama. George & Tammy is a lavish soap opera; a crooning, booze-soaked Nashville melodrama. Many of us might be surprised that Shannon and Chastain expended their considerable talents on such thin material. Perhaps the only fans that George & Tammy will find, then, are the people who were already enraptured by its namesakes.