“The skies can fall and the rivers turn to blood, but there will always be country music. Nobody forgets a true artist. They forget the theatrics and the glitz and the glamour. They forget the sizzle but they still hunger for the steak.” – “George Jones”
Mickey Reece is doing his own thing once again and that’s really good. After Reece-ing the horror genre with Climate Of The Hunter, my personal favorite, and Agnes, Reece has turned his camera towards the music biopic with hilarious and typically Reece-like results. Mickey Reece is an auteur director who is self-driven with a particular style that is all his own. One thing that I will always appreciate is a director really following their own creative drive, even if the results don’t always click for me personally.
That said, COUNTRY GOLD clicked perfectly well for me. It’s a bit of a roast of the new style country stars, specifically Garth Brooks, and an examination of art versus commerce. It’s about a country star, Troyal Brooks, who is tragically unhip yet highly successful, who manages to score an invite from one of his old-style country idols George Jones to spend time together in Nashville. Troyal is ecstatic and seems to be willing to throw all of his responsibilities out the window to run off and meet George Jones. For a person whose life and being is so rigidly under control, this seems totally out of character to the viewer and the people he knows in the film. It really is the first step in something of self-actualization for the country star as he starts to slowly realize what art and greatness are really made of and what they aren’t.
Mickey Reece stars as Troyal and he’s very good as the tightassed and artless musician. He seems like he’s in his own bubble and, while I have never met Garth Brooks, the way that Reece plays the character reminds me of Toby Keith, a country star that I actually have met. The thing is that he is moral and resistant to the temptations that come up as the night progresses despite the peer pressure to give into hedonism. There’s a moment where he sings one of his songs acapella to George Jones while lying on a massage table and while George is getting a handy.
What’s weird is that it reminds me of this song by The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Both in content, because it is a statement about how the musician feels about where he is in his life at that moment and because it is something that the musician came up with on the spot.
George Jones is played by Reece regular Ben Hall (Minari, What Josiah Saw), who has killed it in every Reece film that I’ve seen him in, but particularly as Wesley in Climate Of The Hunter, and he’s done the same here. His Jones is charismatic and self-destructive with a rueful air of someone who has squandered his gift because of his desire for pleasure.
Most of the other characters in the film are women and they are the women who have to deal with the hedonistic excesses of Jones or the emotional wariness of Troyal. Leah N.H. Philpott is Troyal’s long-suffering wife, Jamie, who is the bookend of the never seen saintly wife of Jones who has “finally kicked him out”, but that Jones refers to as a lifesaving woman. Connie Franklin as Gabby Ross, Ginger Gilmartin (Climate Of The Hunter) as Gail Williams, and Danielle Evon Ploeger (Climate Of The Hunter) as Donna, a trio of real country women who join the party and have to navigate the murky waters of Jones and Brooks’ new friendship/rivalry and the expectations of a “real country girl”.
The film is about the country star but I couldn’t help but notice that since Reece cast himself as Troyal Brooks that part of the film’s meaning had to do with his own style of filmmaking and career. Reece’s work is so idiosyncratic that it must be annoying to have his work reduced critically as “weird” or Lynchian. His work is much more comedic and less doom-laden than Lynch’s. Reece is much more playful and does things seemingly for the hell of it, but in ways that have meaning for the overall tone or plot of the film but in a roundabout way.
Ultimately, COUNTRY GOLD is about the tension between the wayward and self-driven artist who isn’t top of the pops but has the respect of other artists and fans in the know and the chart-topping hitmaker who suspects that their work isn’t going to stand the test of time. Both envy, to a certain extent, what the other has, but it’s the ever-present quandary of finding a way to walk the tightrope of keeping your artistic freedom while still finding a way to your own type of success, whatever that means to you. To do it for the artistry, rather than the paycheck, and make art worthy of being remembered forever. To do it for the right reasons and to not allow your demons to destroy your gift, but to also not let self-control void or blunt your truest artistic impulses. Reece clearly knows the topic well since I found this statement while going down twin Chris Gaines and George Jones rabbit holes.
“Garth Brooks, presently the most successful of country performers, has also become an international pop star, selling more albums last year than anyone else in the world. The music itself, which ranks with rap as one of the hottest markets in America, bears little resemblance to the music of George Jones, whose traditionally rooted, the hard-core sound is today an anomaly in Nashville. Yet even for Garth Brooks, “George Jones is king.””
It’s a heavy weight for such a mostly lighthearted comedy to carry, but Reece shoulders that weight well. The film does the best thing in that it doesn’t really gift wrap an answer, but provides a potential and somewhat bizarre moment of hope. Reece shows his auteur sensibilities in stubbornly using black and white rather than color and insisting on following his Id with side stories and camera flourishes that aren’t there to propel the story, a move that angers most film nerds but serves to satisfy the storyteller’s ambitions and add depth to character or texture to the film.
COUNTRY GOLD is a hit. A lighthearted “good ol’ boy” comedy filled with an oddball chaos that lightly covers an interest in the big questions about an artist’s lot in life and what really matters to the artist’s soul.
COUNTRY GOLD had its world premiere at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
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