George & Tammy gives country music legend Tammy Wynette another layer of lacquer when it hits Paramount+ on 5 December.
Fuelled by broken relationships, hard-drinking crooners and hard-edged female icons, Nashville has kept its coffers full for over half a century telling stories. With George & Tammy, that enigma gains more credence as the Ike and Tina Turner of country music step on stage.
Read more: Everything new on Paramount+ in December
Opening in a sweat-filled concert hall circa 1968, audiences are introduced to George Jones (Michael Shannon) cowering inside a toilet cubicle. Blind drunk and seized by stage fright, series director John Hillcoat (The Road) ramps up tensions through claustrophobic close-ups and cut aways to an impatience crowd. This intrusion peels away the gloss of a country music legend piece by piece, while his entourage buzzsaw the toilet door off and drag him on stage.
Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) is slotted in, minutes later, stage side, while her song writing husband Don (Pat Healey) minds their children. As the pickled stage performer muddles his way through another song, this Paramount+ series makes sure to capture every taste and smell inside this jam-packed concert venue.
When Tammy Wynette and George Jones meet a few days later, this hard-living music man is hidden by sunglasses and surrounded by unconscious women. That she is in the room makes no difference, since in this male dominated era female vocalists were treated like trinkets, rather than bonafide artists of merit.
Through their personal relationship and professional partnership which develops over the remaining episodes, George & Tammy feels like the real deal. Both Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon deliver astounding work both on stage and off, charting the roller coaster ride of these country music icons.
Adapted by Abe Sylvia (Dead to Me) from The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, this has award recognition written all over it.
John Hillcoat has always produced exceptional work from very challenging material, and this continues to be the case with George & Tammy. His use of focal length, framing and other savvy storytelling tricks gives this show a very distinctive feel. Disruption, domestic violence and hard-edged moments on screen are never watered down, while both of his principals embrace the process wholeheartedly.
Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in December
Having whisked Tammy away from her weak-willed husband Don, their whirlwind romance feels like a never-ending honeymoon with musical accompaniment. Hit records, sun kissed road trips and passion filled moments alone shape the early years. However, when Tammy starts to outsell her husband and George comes off the wagon, this series really digs into the drama and comes out swinging.
Shotguns, straitjackets and hard liquor start changing George Jones from a perfect partner into a public liability. These transitional moments are captured with a dispassionate eye for human weakness, giving his addictions form and function through a combination of subtle sound design and considered performance choices. Not only granting George Jones more complexity beyond the alcoholic stereotype, but also tapping into the creative conundrum which defines any live performer.
In contemporary terms he is experiencing imposter syndrome, where a combination of inherent insecurities constantly undermines anyone with talent. This might sound like a cliché, but depicted on screen in the hands of Michael Shannon, it leans closer to tragedy than anything more conventional – especially when considered in comparison to the ascension of Tammy Wynette.
As the power dynamic begins to change and they drift apart, this feels more akin to a country and western take on What’s Love Got to Do with It? Tammy begins to develop a Teflon coated defence against the charms of her husband, who is slowly being deserted by close friends and family alike.
Beyond the central duo who so singularly personify these music legends, kudos must be given to Walter Goggins as Peanutt, songwriter and confidant to George Jones. A long time advocate and creative cog in the wheel of this powerhouse couple, who finds himself caught between bar rooms and domestic abuse more than once. It is a role which Walter Goggins handles with care and compassion, making Peanutt much more than just another creative cog.
Likewise, Steve Zahn offers some admirable support as George Richey, who is on hand at various points to let Tammy vent her frustrations, and suggest ways out of this tempestuous union, but also showing a degree of selflessness which exists nowhere else in her life.
Read more: Everything new on Prime Video in December
Combined with the quality of character work elsewhere, this Paramount+ series could easily sit alongside big screen bio-pics like Ray and Bird – who also injected pathos in between moments of creative chaos bringing their icons to life.
George & Tammy is streaming on Paramount+ from 5 December, with new episodes weekly.