‘George & Tammy’ review: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain act with all the intensity of the spitfires they’re portraying

If you added up all the scandals, fights, affairs, betrayals, legal troubles, bouts with addiction, backstage dramatics and onstage antics depicted in “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Respect,” “Elvis,” “Fosse/Verdon” and let’s throw in the fictional “A Star Is Born” as well to make it a fair fight, “George and Tammy” might have the lot of ’em beat, put together.

Over the course of this Showtime six-part limited series, we’re equal parts entertained and exhausted by the trials and tribulations of country music legends George Jones (Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain), and we’re not sure which is more impressive: that George and Tammy were responsible for so much enduring music, or they were able to even stand up and perform on a semi-regular basis.

George Jones was one of the biggest names in country music in the mid-20th century and had more than 150 charted singles in his career, but he was also a self-destructive, sometimes violent alcoholic and drug addict with a long history of missing shows and squandering his fortune before staging yet another comeback.

‘George & Tammy’

Tammy Wynette was an enormously popular country music icon with the signature song “Stand By Your Man” and dozens of other hits, but she was plagued by health issues, became addicted to painkillers, endured dozens of operations, was involved in a number of tumultuous marriages and famously claimed to have been kidnapped, among other controversial incidents.

Separately, they were train wrecks; together, they were the Titanic meets the iceberg, yet through all the madness, they managed to make some beautiful music together

“George & Tammy” is at times overwrought, and the dialogue occasionally veers into soap opera territory, but thanks in large part to Shannon and Chastain delivering powerful, fiery, larger-than-life performances suitable for the characters they’re portraying, it’s a compelling period-piece melodrama, filled with impressive musical performances.

Created by Abe Sylvia (who wrote “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” for which Chastain won an Oscar), with all six episodes helmed by longtime music video director John Hillcoat (his extensive credits go all the way back to co-directing Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” in 1989), “George & Tammy” isn’t subtle about piling on with the wigs and costumes and cars and interior designs of the 1960s and 1970s.

The series kicks off with a graphic telling us, “In the late 60s, George Jones was the undisputed king of country music … but he was slipping. Then he met a former hairdresser just starting to climb the charts. Her name was Virginia Pugh … better known as Tammy Wynette.”

Cut to a drunken George stumbling onto the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1968 and singing with Roy Acuff (the great Tim Blake Nelson in a quick cameo) as the promising young star Tammy Wynette races to the auditorium just in time to catch George performing “White Lightning.” Tammy’s a goner. George is everything. And once George meets Tammy, he’s a goner, too.

Before you can sing a chorus of Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tammy is leaving her volatile husband and songwriting partner Don Chapel (Pat Healy), collecting her kids and running off with George, and off we go on a Greatest Hits medley chronicling their tumultuous love affair and the recording and performing of such No. 1 classics as “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring” and “Two Story House,” the latter of which was recorded long after the pair had split. (As Tammy puts it, “Why should we let divorce ruin a perfectly good partnership?”)

While George often crawls inside of a bottle and Tammy’s dependence on painkillers (both pills and injections) turns into a crippling addiction, songwriter George “Rich” Richey (Steve Zahn) insinuates himself into Tammy’s life, first as her colleague, friend and self-appointed protector, eventually as her husband. (Whereas George and Tammy come across as deeply flawed and often hurtful people who also were capable of love and compassion, Richey is portrayed as an absolute garbage human being whose manipulation and abuse of Tammy is horrific and downright criminal. The likable Zahn, who is most closely associated with playing affable goofs, gives a chillingly effective performance here.)

The songs are often employed as literal commentaries on what’s happening in the personal lives of George and Tammy, e.g., when George is a no-show for their heavily hyped Vegas debut, Tammy wades into the crowd and sings “Stand By Your Man,” winning the audience over one member at a time.

Shannon and Chastain do their own vocals, recorded live, and while no one would expect either one of them to match the majestic talents of the stars they’re portraying, they acquit themselves well. And though we find ourselves wondering time and again why these two didn’t quit one another much sooner than they did, we understand the power of the bond between them. George & Tammy made some memorable music when they were happy, and even more memorable music when they were miserable. Their entire union feels like one gigantic country song.

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