Yet the dramatic consequences such celebrity had on their private lives were as heartbreakingly epic as the lyrics to their songs.
Director John Hillcoat’s limited series stars Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as Jones and Wynette in an unblinking portrait of the duo’s professional zeniths and personal depths as they struggled with poverty, religion, fame, alcohol and drugs, and numerous failed marriages. (Screenwriter Abe Sylvia based the script on daughter Georgette Jones’s 2011 memoir The Three of Us: Growing Up With Tammy and George.) At over five hours, the show epitomizes the musical “deep cut”—in both senses of the term—slicing into the more obscure, and private, stories from the singers’ biographies, with some moments as raw and dark as a Bergman chamber drama.
It would be difficult to imagine two better actors than Chastain and Shannon—who previously starred together in Jeff Nichols’s 2011 drama Take Shelter—to portray hardscrabble Nashville royalty. Despite their Hollywood-lead status, both possess the workman-like ethic of character actors, keeping up the startling pace of three to five films a year on average for the past decade. (Shannon counts as many as 10 roles in 2016 alone.) Shannon’s work has often spotlighted Middle American roughnecks or rakish outsiders like mob hitman Richard Kuklinski, music impresario Kim Fowley, and a post-Comeback Elvis Presley. “I’ve been asked who I liked playing more, Elvis or George,” he says during a recent telephone conversation. “I would say that I really fell in love with both of them. I think they’re both very sweet people who were overwhelmed by their lives and overwhelmed by their own talents and abilities.”
For her part, Chastain, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, has built one of Hollywood’s most impressive resumes playing dramatic characters with markedly “un-Hollywood” pedigrees or regional backstories, from the Biblically inspired Mrs. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s suburban meditation The Tree of Life to televangelist-singer Tammy Faye Bakker, for which she won the Oscar. “I guess there might be something similar [between them],” Chastain says of the two Tammys—Wynette and Bakker—both rural Americans who grew up in the church before rising to massive celebrity within male-dominated fields, but without the approbation of the era’s growing feminist movement. It is a question that she has been asked often in the lead-up to the series’s premiere. “They are both women doing extraordinary things in an environment that suppresses them. Women who are defined by the men in their lives and break free from that.”