By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
From Bohemian Rhapsody to Rocketman to I Want to Dance with Somebody to Elvis, the music biopic genre has seen a resurgence of interest in the last few years. And, while the talents at the heart of these biopics are iconic, the film and television adaptations aren’t always up to the same par. The latest in this growing subgenre is George & Tammy, a six-episode Showtime miniseries starring Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon as country music legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Ten years ago, Jessica Chastain was approached by Josh Brolin at the Golden Globes to star in a theatrical adaptation of the lives of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The project underwent a number of changes behind the scenes, with Michael Shannon replacing Josh Brolin as George Jones and the project eventually becoming a limited series rather than a theatrical outing.
A pervasive issue in the music biopic genre is a struggle to capture the grandiosity and enduring magic of iconic musicians in a truncated two-hour journey. An accelerated pace, while making for films that hold one’s attention as audiences fly through the ups and downs of a musician’s life, can ultimately foster a more superficial understanding of an artist. Thankfully, George & Tammy subverts this issue spectacularly. The six-episode limited series format affords much needed time and space for the characters and their stories to breathe. In turn, George & Tammy never suffers from the jarring time jumps or head-scratching explanations that hinder many music biopics.
The mileage audiences get out of George & Tammy will likely depend on one’s prior exposure to and familiarity with the country music giants at the heart of this story. The series will undoubtedly shine a light on their talent and lasting legacy for newcomers, but will likely resonate more with people who grew up listening to the likes of “Stand By Your Man.” Adding credibility to the story is that it is based on the book The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, which was written by their daughter Georgette Jones, who also served as consulting producer on the series.
George & Tammy isn’t a musical, but intelligently uses particular songs of the famous duo to tell its story in a manner somewhat similar to the Elton John biopic Rocketman. For instance, the series pilot sees Jessica Chastain’s Tammy say, “I believe you have to live a song to make it good.” An admiring George Jones takes this to heart and sings Tammy’s song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” several times to announce his own divorce and to profess his love for her.
Indeed, George & Tammy is as much an epic, decades-long romantic tale as it is a traditional music biopic. Series creator Abe Sylvia and director John Hillcoat don’t reinvent either genre, but they manage to bring a level of craft here that makes for compelling viewing. The tumultuous and passionate romance between Chastain’s Tammy and Shannon’s George lays at the core of this story and, thankfully, never feels exploitative or exaggerated. Much of this success can be attributed to the dual leading performances of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. One of the best actors of his generation, Shannon shows impressive range with his performance as George Jones and brings a rawness and tragedy to his portrayal of Jones’ enduring struggles with alcohol addiction. Meanwhile, Chastain, coming off her Oscar winning turn in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is transformative as another musically-inclined Tammy. Chastain brings a genuine endearing quality to Tammy, making her trials and tribulations all the more heartbreaking. In the series’ sixth and final episode, Tammy’s health issues culminate in a significant weight loss and Chastain once again takes such challenges in her stride in delivering another transformative performance. The two leads also impress with the series’ various musical setpieces. As revealed during a recent Q&A with Jessica Chastain, director John Hillcoat opted against lip syncing in favor of live performances from Chastain and Shannon, which adds a sense of affection and authenticity to the series.
Amidst the slew of music biopics in recent years, George & Tammy excels as an impressive and intimate romance that benefits greatly from its long-form storytelling. Although rather conventional in its approach to a music biopic, the new Showtime series triumphs with its endearing and tragic depiction of a true romance. Fans of the titular country music duo will likely get more out of this series than newcomers, but Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon deliver awards-worthy performances that captivate from beginning to end.
All six episodes of George & Tammy are now streaming on the Showtime app.