It’s one of the great country-music stories, filled with love, pain, sex, addiction and triumph.
But it also seems to spiral downward. “That’s not the way it’s gotta be,” George Jones says near the end of the “George & Tammy” mini-series (shown here). “There’s a happy ending.”
Well … not really, but this six-part film does find pieces of one.
“George & Tammy” opens at 9 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 4) on Showtime and the Paramount Network (right after “Yellowstone”). Its other five episodes arrive Sundays on Showtime and Paramount+.
Other stories – Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and June Carter – were easier to shape, because the lovers were still together at the end. But how do you tell this one?
Carefully and lovingly, it turns out. Viewers emerge with a fondness for both (perfectly played by Michael Shannon and, especially, Jessica Chastain) … and joy in the comebacks they kept having.
The first hour is simply fun. Wynette – once a hairdresser named Virginia Pugh – is twice-married, with three singles on the country chart and a producer (Billy Sherrill) who believes in her. She’s also a huge fan of Jones, 11 years her senior. Soon, he’s upended her life and her dining-room table.
By the second hour, his alcoholism is taking over. It’s a rough time, but the episode is salvaged by a great songs – “Stand By Your Man,” written by Sherrill, re-written by Wynette and given the treatment Sherrill mastered: straightforward country lyrics, merged with lush, “wall of sound” pop backing.
The rest of the hours continue that rollercoaster. They writhe with pain from Jones’ alcoholism and from Wynette’s medical problems and the addiction they spurred. But there also show comebacks – duets, a final tour and the landmark moment when (after a year of hesitation) Jones recorded “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
The mini-series claims that Wynette was there for the recording. It takes a pro-Tammy slant throughout, which isn’t difficult. Jones, in his autobiography, admits to many wrongs.
But it also shows things that he denied. He said he never hit Wynette, never trashed the Florida mansion he had carefully decorated. He said it was his next wife (not Wynette, as shown here) whom he foiled by driving a lawnmower to the bar.
“George & Tammy” is based on a book by their daughter Georgette. It belittles Wynette’s second husband, ignores her fourth and is virulent about her fifth, George Richey, accusing him of wretched things that have never been proven.
But as somber and bitter as it gets, this remains surprisingly entertaining. Shannon and Chastain make us care about these troubled souls.
Whenever things drag down too far, there’s another comeback or another great song. We see hard times and redemption, despair and love, three chords and the truth. That’s country music.