George & Tammy review – Jessica Chastain is phenomenal at standing by her man
In the first episode of George & Tammy (Paramount+), a serviceable love story supercharged by its two leads, Tammy Wynette tells a band of local musicians “I believe you have to live a song to make it good”. Over the course of six episodes, and five husbands, Jessica Chastain’s Wynette lives those songs. Anyone familiar with her music’s yearning and sadness will know that this is not going to be a fairytale. “She speaks for the woman who’s been kicked in the ass all her life,” is how Wynette’s longtime producer Billy Sherrill once described her.
This is an entertaining and well executed drama, even if it does lack the razzle-dazzle you might expect from a country biopic. Perhaps creator Abe Sylvia was all out of glitz: he recently worked with Chastain on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which she played another Tammy, the famous televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
Here, she plays Wynette over the course of three decades, from 1965 until her death in 1998 at the age of 55. Its focus is on the six-year marriage (1969-75), and lifelong love, between her and third husband George Jones (Michael Shannon). Jones was a titan of country music when he and Wynette met in 1968. She was an up-and-comer whose star soon began to eclipse his own. The story is infused with shades of A Star Is Born and Walk the Line, in that it deals with outrageous artistic egos, combustible drunks and the healing love of a good woman. But it slowly reveals its hand in that respect, telling the story of Wynette’s tragedies before and after Jones came along. She is not quite the typical longsuffering, silent wife, though her music often painted her as a figure in that mould. As the series progresses, we get an unsparing take on her story, from the electroshock therapy she was forced to endure to her long and ravaging addiction to painkillers.
The first episode is phenomenal. When it kicks off, Wynette is married to Don Chapel, an aspiring songwriter who thinks he’ll get rich quick in Nashville with Wynette upfront in a family-band setup. He is one of many fragile male egos in Tennessee, and he grumbles that his guitar isn’t loud enough on stage, or that if she really loved him she’d play one of his songs to Jones, then a huge star, in the hope that he will record it. Chapel tells her that without him, she’d be nothing. But when she meets Jones, they are clearly so hot for each other that her husband doesn’t have a chance. He is played as such a rotter that you can’t help rooting for their D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Still, it’s impressive that it gets that far. Wynette meets Jones in a hotel room, where he is holed up with two women, a brewery’s worth of beer bottles and a proclamation that he “hasn’t shit in three days”. I believe that is what is known as a red flag, ladies, but Wynette sees past the hopeless drunk, in part because she grew up idolising him. Their relationship is, perhaps inevitably, tempestuous, destructive and violent, and eventually, after making beautiful music together, it flames out.
The two leads are fantastic, and do a great deal to elevate an occasionally corny script, inclined towards cliches, and rarely leaving anything under explained. Wynette likes to point out that she couldn’t get away with half of what a man does in this town. After one drunken rage, Jones pleads for forgiveness by pointing out that “he’s just a man”. Soon enough, we see Wynette at the piano writing a little number called Stand By Your Man. But together, Chastain and Shannon are dynamite, and they mostly make the cheesier lines work. “I’m a man, not an opportunity,” says Jones, and the unusual way Shannon delivers it makes it sound profound rather than clunky.
With such movie star power on display, some may be left with a sneaking suspicion that this might have made a better movie than it does a series. The pace slows once the couple get together, and, by spanning 30 years, it stretches its premise. But it makes the most of the space it creates. The period details are gorgeous, gaudy, kitsch and vivid, but most of the screen time is used to linger on Chastain and Shannon’s faces in closeup. The show is more concerned with the intimate details of love and despair than the lure of the spotlight, and it is stronger for it.