What The “George & Tammy” Series Got Right and Wrong

Warning: Some spoilers

For years, fans of traditional country music have been subject to hints and allegations of films, movies, and television series about their heroes and favorite artists that either never materialize, or remain in the rumor mode indefinitely. And if these projects do come to fruition, they’re often so frustratingly terrible, you almost wish they didn’t. See the horrendous Hank Williams I Saw The Light film starring Tom Hiddleston from 2015. Or better off, don’t. Just getting George & Tammy into production, let alone released, feels like a victory in its own right, regardless of how the series turned out.

But overall, George & Tammy turned out pretty spectacular generally speaking, with some very serious caveats that for some viewers ultimately turned out to be fatal to their viewership. There is a reason that almost every single professional review of this series was glowing in its praise. And let’s appreciate that unlike in the music realm where seldom is heard a discouraging word, movie reviewers will unflinchingly return a negative review if they feel it is warranted.

Irrespective of how authentic you may feel the characters were to George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Michael Shannon (George) and Jessica Chastain (Tammy) turned in stellar performances for the characters they looked to evoke on the screen. Michael Shannon had that air of always being on the edge of an eruption, and the complexity of going from an angry drunk to a shameful drunk down masterfully. Jessica Chastain was tasked to work in more subtle shades, commonly having to put on a strong face during catastrophic moments, but still reveal the internal emotion and turmoil that Tammy must have felt in major moments.

This was a film that all stops were taken out for. The settings, the costuming, the top-shelf casting, the on-location cinematography, even the opening sequence showing vinyl records being manufactured took great care with the weight of the subject matter, and the reverence that the lives of George Jones and Tammy Wynette wield within the hearts of country music fans, no matter how much truth may be mixed in with the mythology. Similarly, the dialogue told this duo’s troubling story in a compelling way irrespective of the audience’s knowledge of the lives of these two stars beforehand.

The supporting cast also deserves praise, with David Wilson Barnes evoking the “devil may care” air of the pistol-packing producer Billy Sherrill, and Walter Goggins portraying the evolving character of George Jones best friend Earl “Peauntt” Montgomery from piss drunk to born-again Baptist with the complexity the role required. The portrayal of songwriter, producer, and later Tammy Wynette husband George Richey was a bit jumpy and transparent at times, but the players in the Jones Boys band all did a fine job playing their parts, including real-world performers Zachariah Malachi as fiddle player Charlie Justice and Logan Ledger as George Riddle. Ledger got to sing in the very final scene of the series, and incidentally, might be the greatest living George Jones soundalike.

Especially when it comes to music biopics, these things don’t always turn out this well. Writers and directors who are more fans than they are fair arbiters for what makes a story line or scene compelling to an audience commonly get this wrong, often relying on the weight of the artist’s legacy to carry scenes as opposed to the way things like the lighting helps tell the story, and how the words spoken are never secondary. In regards to cinematography, George & Tammy scores an A+ too.

But to serious country music fans, none of this may matter if you don’t get certain elements of the story correct, or the characters don’t come across as believable. While professional critics and general audiences rightfully fawned over this series, some dedicated fans of George Jones and Tammy Waynette sway somewhere between mildly disappointed to downright fit to be tied how George & Tammy turned out.

The first and most obvious complaint comes with the singing of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as George and Tammy. Since neither are professional singers—and absolutely no soul on the face of this earth could ever match the vocal majesty of George or Tammy while also pulling off the acting requirements these castings required—you still want to give them credit for having the guts to sing their own parts. Furthermore, having the two lip-sync over the original songs would have resulted in the same degree of criticism, just of a different nature from audience members decreeing the lip-sync practice as inauthentic, distracting, and too dependent on the suspension of disbelief.

There is no right answer on how to handle the musical performances of a musical biopic, unless you’re Jamie Foxx. So you just have to choose either lip sync or live performance, and do the best you can with that decision. But where George & Tammy got this aspect of this film wrong is by leaning too much on the singing of these two non-signing actors to the point where they were left open and exposed. Instead of perhaps showing 20 to 30 seconds of a stage or studio performance, and then maybe cutting away and finishing the scene off with the original track, they left Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon out there for two or three minutes at a time, and anchored the episodes around these performances, fueling the frustration of dedicated country fans.

Further infringing on the audience’s sensibilities, some of the live performances were actually lip synced by the actors to studio recordings of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain singing George and Tammy songs. In other words, it was the worst of both worlds where you not only didn’t get the real deal recording, and you got an asynchronous lip-synced performance too. Sometimes when a song was just playing in the background as part of a scene and not a live performance itself, it was still Michael and Jessica singing, not George and Tammy. Sony has even released a 26-song album of Michael and Jessica’s renditions from the series, which in many respects illustrates the hubris with which they approached the musical performances of this project.

But again, if you decide instead to have the actors lip sync to the original recordings, you could have just as many disappointed fans and complaints. It’s also possible that the creators of the film could not secure the rights to the original recordings. With the fractured and tumultuous nature of both the George Jones and Tammy Wynette estates, this is a very real possibility, especially when you consider that Nancy Jones (George’s widow) is said to have her own George Jones film in the works.

The other common and fair criticism of the series was some of the clear mistakes and anachronisms in spots. In the first episode for example, they showed Roy Acuff in a cowboy hat, which Roy Acuff never wore, and fans crashing the stage at the Ryman Auditorium at a Grand Ole Opry performance, which never happened in any era. George Richey is introduced in the first episode as the musical director of Hee-Haw where George Jones had performed at that point multiple times. But the first episode was set in the late 60 before Hee-Haw had begun airing.

This was just the start of how the series played fast and loose with the timeline of events throughout, getting under the collar of some fans and historians who may know the story of George and Tammy more intimately than general audiences. These criticisms levied by well-informed viewers and specifically by podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe who profiled George Jones in-depth in his recent season are certainly valid. The question is if these criticisms are warranted for a series that is not meant to be a documentary or dry recitation of facts, but a dramatization based on real events that the public understands will take some liberties to make for an enjoyable and compelling watch.

Dramatized biopics like George & Tammy tend to work more like old-time maps, where the most important features are overly-emphasized, and the minute details are lost or perhaps out of order compared to the truth. All of the major stories from the duo’s tumultuous marriage and duets are portrayed in this series—from George Jones flipping the table at Don Chapel’s house, to George riding his lawnmower to the bar after his keys had been taken from him, to the “attempted murder” by George of Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery—but they may not be portrayed exactly on the proper timeline, or with every detailed fact of the occurrence perfectly accurate.

But even in a six episode series, there is only so much time to get into the details of two lifetimes worth of information, and enough drama for two dozen lifetimes like the drama George and Tammy experienced. So things are going to be condensed, and important moments entangled to get them all in. Overall, were all the important points touched on in the series? Yes. Was the public dramatically misled from the portrayal of these two country legends? Zooming out and looking at the entirety of the series as opposed to zooming in on each little scene and scrutinizing it, probably not. George & Tammy did a fair job telling the story of these two in a generally accurate manner.

But again, that doesn’t mean that the objections raised about specific details of the series are invalid. Tyler Mahan Coe released an entire series of videos and a host of scathing tweets scrutinizing most every scene and bit of dialogue in the series. Many of Tyler’s issues about the series are probably accurate, and he is most certainly an authority on the subject matter. But this can’t be confused with artistic criticism of a dramatized series. That is an analytical assessment wanting to get every single detail of a fictionalized drama based on true events correct—something that has its place for people who want to delve into the detail-by-detail accuracy of this series, but fair to question as relevant to the outcome of what the series attempted to be, which was a portrayal of the lives of George & Tammy for entertainment value and general insight.

Tyler Mahan Coe also has a history of considering himself the sole authority on whatever subject matter he chooses to broach, and often based off of books as opposed to real life sources, like Georgette Jones, who is the only child of George and Tammy, and whose book this series is based on. Georgette also was an executive producer of George & Tammy. Some have pointed out that Georgette wasn’t even alive when half of this series takes place. But Tyler Mahan Coe was alive for even less of it. That doesn’t mean Georgette gets it all right and Tyler Mahan Coe gets it all wrong. It just means that much of history is “living” in the respect that there can be different takes behind the same instance, and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what happened in a certain instance.

But a more broad criticism from Tyler Mahan Coe and others is that the series didn’t capture the true essence of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, or their tumultuous relationship. I have to respectfully disagree. The underlying theme, and perhaps the master stroke of this series was how it illustrated the entanglement of the personal lives of artists with the business interests of the industry with an emotional impact that resonated deeply with a receptive audience.

From the very beginning of the series, George Jones is cussing the business of country music, pontificating how it will tear the couple’s relationship asunder, and how their misery is being used to sell records. “Happy at home doesn’t make hits” is the quote from Episode 3 when everything was hunky dory in the George & Tammy household, and they were struggling commercially. In episode 5, it’s underscored how it’s not just the fans who benefit from the drama, but the business, creating a perverse set of incentives for artists to lead messed up lives so it makes for good country music—an issue we still experience in country music today.

In episode 6, George Jones goes on a rant, saying in part, “The worse I got, the more they loved me. The only reason strangers can love me is ’cause they don’t know me.” The concerns for Tammy Wynette were even more pronounced since she was a woman. Rumors of the same behavior that ensconced George Jones as a God could result in scandal for her amid a more quickly dwindling shelf life, and the judgement of the public. The callous nature of the country music business was in full display in this series, especially in the concluding episode where Tammy is cringingly shown “going pop” to stay relevant, and George speaks about how today’s country is not country.

But even with all of this compelling content, George & Tammy does feel like it slightly failed on a fundamental objective, which was to get the legacies of George Jones and Tammy Wynette out to a bigger audience, and a new generation. This wasn’t entirely the fault of the series. Some general viewer criticism has been that the film was just too much of a downer, especially for debuting it during the heart of the Holidays. Since it was on one of the other streaming services (Paramount+) and a struggling cable network (Showtime) as opposed to HBO or Netflix (it was too racy for network TV), it just kind of got lost in the shuffle. Competing with Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan’s new series Tulsa King, and the general Holiday madness, George & Tammy barely touched a nerve in the zeitgeist like we were hoping for. It was just too hard to find during too busy of a time.

And that’s a shame, because even with all the faults and fair criticisms, George & Tammy feels worthy of an audience, at least one that’s willing to go along for the ride as opposed to finding reasons to fault it. Superbly acted, produced with love for the story and these two country legends, George & Tammy tells the tragic, yet beautiful story of not just two performers, but of the eternal dichotomies inherent in country music, and why it compels the soul like it does.

7.8/10


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