A pair of golden performances elevates the standard entertainment biopic in “George & Tammy,” a six-part limited series airing on Showtime.
The story behind George & Tammy plays out like a real-life “Star Is Born:” king of his respective entertainment genre takes a young upstart under his wing and falls in love with her – but his substance abuse issues only get worse when her star starts to eclipse his. Of course, the real-life romance of king of country music George Jones (played by Michael Shannon) and his queen Tammy Wynette (played by Jessica Chastain) takes some extensive tours. But at this point in the music biopic era, we’ve already seen a multitude of missed gigs, dressing room arguments, and bottles hurled against a wall, preferably smashing a mirror (although Jones driving drunk on a riding mower is the stuff of alcoholic legend).
Fortunately for “George & Tammy,” its two leads rise up to meet – and even surpass – their source material (the memoir “The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George” by the pair’s only child, Georgette Jones), building on the marital chemistry they displayed in 2011’s “Take Shelter.”
Much has been made of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain traveling to Nashville to learn how to embody the country sound that made Jones and Wynette such legends, and that effort has certainly paid off. As each episode is named after a popular song by the pair, we get to see the events leading up to the crafting of hits like “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Two-Story Home.” This makes their eventual performance that much more poignant, as when a shaken-but-still-standing Tammy sings “Stand By Your Man” after a horrifying experience with a drunkenly abusive Jones.
Michael Shannon has deserved a legendary main role like this one for quite a while, and his fearlessness in embracing all of Jones, from his hypnotic charm to his all-consuming demons, is mesmerizing. (The scenes where George is on one of his alcohol-fueled tirades are appropriately shot and scored like a horror movie.) The musically gifted actor (who has his own band, Corporal), admirably dares to take on one of the greatest performances in all of country music – Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And his heartrending delivery of George’s divorce song “The Grand Tour” is nearly as devastating as Jones’ own.
Yes, Chastain is playing another real-life Tammy, (after winning an Oscar for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which was also written by “George & Tammy” creator Abe Silvia), and again, she is less portraying the character than possessing her completely. We can’t help but pull for Chastain’s Tammy as the stronger, stabilizing force in the relationship, which makes it all the most devastating when she also falls prey to addiction, abusing pain medication after a problematic hysterectomy. Tammy is dynamic enough to save herself from some perils, but unfortunately, not all of them.
But if your name isn’t George or Tammy in this series, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot for you to do. Stellar character actors like Walton Goggins and Katy Mixon are wasted in the roles of George’s bandmate/drinking buddy Peanutt and Tammy’s pal/hairdresser Jan, respectively. At least the usually-impossible-to-dislike Steve Zahn gets to dive deep into the villainous role of Tammy’s fifth and final husband, George Richey. But even with all that extra time, “George & Tammy” fails to explain why she even married Richey (alluding to a combination of blackmail and intravenous drug addiction), let alone she stayed married to him for 20 years until her death in ella. 1998.
As enjoyable as “George & Tammy” can be at times, especially when its two main players are adorably flirting onstage or melding two singing voices that seem born to fit together, there’s a definite feeling that six episodes was at least two too many. The first few episodes herald the speedy momentum of the pair falling in love (George overturning the dinner table of Tammy’s about-to-be ex-husband is especially explosive), which just makes the ones that come afterwards appear to drag, especially after the two have broken up and are on wildly different paths. After all, if the legendary love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter could be told in a two-hour movie, why do George & Tammy merit around triple that time?
Still, the Showtime limited series — directed by John Hillcoat — is able to miraculously capture that feeling when you connect with someone who’s going to be in your life forever, never minding your past, and no matter what your divorce papers and current marital status may indicate. For all their musical success, the love of Tammy and George was also at greater risk due to the public spectacle of their romance – fans couldn’t get enough of them, which was good for business, not so much for the relationship. George pleads with Tammy, “This thing that’s just ours, it shouldn’t be for everybody else,” but managers, record labels, magazine interviews, and chart positions were bound to get on the way.
Throughout the series, if Tammy is in the room, George can’t look at anyone else, because for him there isn’t anyone else. One of the series’ brighter and most unexpected moments shows Shannon and Chastain portraying Tammy and George much later in life, obviously still enjoying each other immensely. George worries in the series that the couple would eventually lose their fire. But the brave, emotionally vulnerable performances of “George & Tammy” indicate that the pair’s unbridled chemistry was able to withstand everything that life threw at them, even if the marriage didn’t last.
“George & Tammy” premieres on Showtime on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 9 pm ET/PT, and the first episode will be simulcast behind “Yellowstone” on Paramount Network.