Hollywood is loving a couple right now. On screens big and small we see the golden age of the shared biopic, those real two-handed swords. Out of Be the Ricardos to Pam & Tommy, above House of Gucci, Fosse/Verdon and Tammy Faye’s eyes, the world’s most famous actors are drawn to these dramatic duets. And the latest iteration of this trend has arrived on new streaming platform Paramount+: George & Tammythe inside story of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s rocky marriage.
These names might not mean much to a British audience, but Jones and Wynette are two of the biggest names in country music. They conquered America in the 1960s and 1970s, both with their wistful songs and their turbulent personal lives. In this series directed by The street‘s John Hillcoat, Jones is played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and Wynette by Oscar winner Jessica Chastain, which should give an indication of the caliber of the production. This is a beautifully assembled 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 viewed as a slow, six-part awakening. Shannon is a great physical performer who stumbles somewhere between aggression and awkwardness. “You sound like a preacher,” Tammy tells him. “So drunk, too.” Chastain, meanwhile, comes from her Oscar-winning portrayal of Tammy Faye (her quest to play every famous Tammy continues with next year’s live-action Tamagotchi film). Here she is an all-American train wreck, portraying the million-watt smile and the dope devil equally convincingly.
your delight in George & Tammy will ultimately be based on your tolerance for American country music. The show doesn’t forgo lengthy performances of songs that highlight key dramatic moments: “DIVORCE,” for example, is set about the final days of Tammy’s marriage to Don Chapel (Pat Healy), while “Stand By Your Man” is the sound of George’s struggles. As the guitar strings begin to be plucked and the warbles set in, the show shifts into a play mode on the gallery: which might be okay if you’re Elvis or Elton. But George Jones and Tammy Wynette? Will their music find new audiences or just entertain an already captive audience?
The thing about country music—both the songs and the lifestyles of its performers—is that the proceedings are conducted with a kind of hysterical intensity that would shame the writers EastEnders. Tammy’s number one credo is that “you have to live a song to do it well,” 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 getting yourself into. Neither the genre nor this series cares for snooty, cosmopolitan things like “Subtext”: The show is just as big, sassy, and gross as its protagonists.
“You’re not perfect,” George Tammy says during her courtship. “I can hear it in your voice.” That fragility in the notes Tammy sings flows into her life story — but that same quivering edge is absent from the drama. George & Tammy is a lavish soap opera; a singing, booze-soaked Nashville melodrama. Many of us may be surprised that Shannon and Chastain have expended their considerable talent on such flimsy material. Maybe the only fans who George & Tammy will find, are the people who were already enraptured by its namesake.