‘George & Tammy’: Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon Croon a Tragic Ballad of Love and Fame

There is a difference between a bad relationship and a bad relationship featuring two major talents. It is the kind of chemistry that can instantly become volatile. Showtime’s “George & Tammy” is about that kind of love affair. On a superficial level, maybe country icons George Jones and Tammy Wynette should not have been together, but then we wouldn’t have the materials necessary for this emotionally scorching limited series. Fame has a way of enhancing the better and worst selves of individuals blessed with its touch, which is another reason why this kind of story fascinates on a level beyond the great music. This doesn’t mean music isn’t at the center of it all, but you don’t have to be into country music to be taken in by the journey of these two characters.

As the limited series opens, George (Michael Shannon) is already a major country artist in the 1960s, garnering big crowds and obsessed fans. He is introduced to Mississippi native, Tammy (Jessica Chastain), an impressive songwriter and vocalist stuck gigging with her husband, Don (Pat Healy), who yearns to have George hear his material. She is already a big admirer of George’s and he senses an instant connection. Despite the toxic attitude of a jealous Don, Tammy boldly presents her material to the country star and the two are soon singing a duet on stage. But George is also a volatile figure prone to heavy drinking and other antics, yet this also makes him bold enough to propose to Tammy that they run off and eventually get married. She can’t resist, brings along the kids and the two are soon living their grand romance while spinning out hits. With their rise comes more scandal, success and heartbreak.

“George & Tammy” is the flipside of movies like “Walk the Line,” that wonderful take on the romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter. Showrunner Abe Sylvia, who wrote Chastain’s passion project, last year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is aiming for one of those devastating experiences mixed with the excitement of creativity like “A Star Is Born” or “The Rose.” Directing, is the notable Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat. His “The Proposition” remains one of the great modern westerns. He gives the material a gritty visual elegance that captures the romance and pain of this story. It begins quite tenderly, with the ambitious Tammy giving George a sense of the kind of caring, patient woman that could really do him some good as a partner. They connect through scenes that don’t aim to be bombastic. She washes his hair and talks to him like a human being, which seems to open his eyes after years of groupies and wildness. He in turns initially shows Tammy the kind of respect and appreciation the envious, prudish Don never gives at home. This is why she tolerates the first signs that George hasn’t overcome his vices, such as wielding guns on a tour bus or erupting into drunken rages in their hotel room. 

Two other layers that make the show more than another romance hangover are how the series explores the relation between life and art, as well as the dangers of two creatives being together. Chastain and Shannon sing in many scenes and they bring to the songs the feel of genuinely expressing what their characters are feeling. Tammy tells band members that a song has to be lived to be well performed, and we can see that when she records “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” with the tears beginning to flow. The classic “Stand By Your Man” transforms into a semi-ironic statement because Tammy keeps trying to first support Don and then tolerate George’s increasing chaos. For a talented woman like Tammy, now seen as a major country figure, rising to prominence meant facing the misogyny of an industry that wanted to see her as the woman behind the man. She has faced producers demanding sex in exchange to hear her music, a jealous husband who asks his guitar be raised during sound check, and then a superstar husband who feels the sting of others beginning to hint she’s the brighter talent. When he’s too trashed to make a joint appearance, Tammy has to endure hearing an angry promoter barking that “we don’t even have half” of the promised show.

Chastain and Shannon, who already played a couple with wonderful chemistry in the apocalyptic drama “Take Shelter,” bring a special pathos to material we might at first see as familiar. They make us care for the singer who can’t overcome his impulses and the woman who channels her experiences into vivid lyrics. Life troubles become made only fiercer by the pressures of fame. Tammy gives birth to their first child but it’s such a difficult process she undergoes a hysterectomy. Supposed friends take advantage of her vulnerability to become painkiller providers and lovers. By letting us, the viewers, spend time with Tammy and George in private moments where they grapple with loving each other and hurting each other, we can see why they sang the music that defined them. Perhaps as a subconscious reaction to Tammy’s growing reputation, George starts missing shows, preferring to go get hammered. Eric Clapton once said to sing a song like “Cocaine” you need to have experienced it, the same goes for George and a number like “If the Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will.”

“George & Tammy” may be too emotionally draining for some to binge, but watched in increments it’s an insightful, well-performed biography of a couple. Their trials help make them more human and thus more relatable. Even with several platinum albums you can easily screw up a good thing with someone. For Chastain in particular, this performance is one of her best recent offerings. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” tried unconvincingly to turn a huckster into a proto-feminist figure. Tammy Wynette was an artist born with a natural talent swept up by the forces of where that talent took her and who she fell in love with. She would die in 1998, officially from a blood clot but most likely from her painkiller addiction. George would live on until 2013. This series acknowledges the couple’s craft while never descending into a watered down portrait. It’s about the great music, but also the dark nights of the soul that made it possible. 

George & Tammy” begins streaming Dec. 4 on Showtime.