I must admit that as much as I love the classic recordings of country music king and queen George Jones and Tammy Wynette — a whole damn lot — my first thought on learning that they would be the subjects of a double biopic was to wonder whether its creator would be hip enough to include “Justified & Ancient,” a.k.a. “Stand by the Jams,” Wynette’s collaboration with British art-dance group the KLF. And so he does (even using the title for the final episode), if with a bit of a superior attitude. (I also love that track a whole damn lot.)
“George & Tammy,” which premieres Sunday on Showtime, stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy and Michael Shannon as George. Written by Abe Sylvia (who also wrote the Chastain feature “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) with daughter Georgette Jones’ “The Three of Us: Growing Up With Tammy and George” as the optioned source material, the limited series keeps the focus on the years when the two were in and out of each other’s lives.
As biopics go, “George & Tammy” is better than most, beautifully acted, nicely filmed, full of music and not lacking for crazy, infamous events. (The Driving a Tractor to Get a Drink Scene, George Taking a Shot at reformed drinking partner Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, played by Walton Goggins — they’re here and much more.) But a series that claims to represent real historical events can lead one to wonder, distractedly, what truly happened and what was embellished or didn’t happen at all.
Given that, it may be best to regard the whole thing as fiction, which it inescapably is. It’s a scripted narrative pulled from actual events; variously reliable, at times conflicting first- and second-hand testimony; and recorded evidence, colored with invented conversation, all selected and arranged to provide a powerful narrative. Even the songs seem to arrive just to underscore a dramatic point, like a jukebox musical.
For much of the six episodes, you may feel as if you’re watching a riff on “A Star Is Born,” with young Tammy on the way up and older George, already an alcoholic, on the way down, the two destined for triumphs and tears and codependence. Not that he walks into the ocean at the end; nor does she proudly declare from the stage of the Grammys, “This is Mrs. George Jones.” Though I have little doubt she would.
You will also have to reckon with the stars’ singing, which they do themselves, better than passably well, catching something of the style and a bit of the depth of their models and sounding especially right when they harmonize. That said, Jones is widely considered the greatest singer in the history of country music, and Wynette’s style was singular from her first demos — whatever the tabloid appeal of their life together, it’s the source of their charisma. If you are trying to make a case for their artistic greatness, rather than just re-create their adventures and, more often, misadventures, karaoke, however good, will get you only partway there.
The series’ length is an advantage — it allows for longer scenes, more subtle development and world-building, as opposed to a theatrical biopic where an entire life is often crammed into a couple hours. At the same time, it may be a little too long, given the repeated relapses and reunions — enough already, you may come to feel — and once Tammy is on to her fourth husband, manager George Richey (a creepy Steve Zahn), and hooked on painkillers, the story loses steam. (It does get it back, however, whenever George Jones enters the room.) There is some fast-forwarding across the singers’ less successful later years, to get them back together, having serious talks and singing duets.
In a succession of wigs and costumes familiar from album covers and personal appearances, some of which the series re-creates, Chastain makes a reasonable facsimile of Wynette; she does register more as a country singer than a movie star. Shannon’s casting, by contrast, feels odd — apart from being two heads taller than Jones, he looks nothing like him. His size does make him more threatening in his Mr. Hyde mode, though, and there’s nothing to fault in his portrayal of a man on a downward spiral. And Sylvia does Jones the favor of making him good with kids, when not disappointing them — scenes Shannon plays just as well.
Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” was attacked as regressive, but the series has a low-key feminist slant; just how “girl singers” in Nashville are allowed to behave, as opposed to the roistering menfolk, comes up more than once, and Chastain, in a wonderful, studied performance, plays to Tammy’s strengths in a series where she’s often a victim, if sometimes of her own bad choices.
Toxic males abound, not only second husband Don Chapel (Pat Healy), a songwriter and wannabe recording artist, sullen and pushy, and enabling, opportunistic, obsessed fourth husband and manager Richey but also the doctors who botched her hysterectomy, leading to a life of pain, and the doctors who prescribed her stronger and stronger painkillers.
Jones, husband No. 3 (it was his third marriage as well — “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” isn’t merely a song among this crowd), comes across as the least toxic, oddly, because although he is as great a mess as has ever stood before a microphone, he wants nothing from her and His Love Is True. And that is really the arc of the story: the ups and downs of their linked, unlinked, linked, unlinked and linked lives and careers, seen through a veil of drink and drugs. It’s a cautionary love story, with good songs.
Framing is everything in a fact-based series, where you begin and end your tale. There is not much offered in the way of backstory; George and Tammy both appear in the opening scene, not yet together, as she crowds up to the front of the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to see him perform — a performance that, like many, almost didn’t take place. (Many others didn’t take place at all, leading to the nickname “No Show Jones.”)
And Wynette and Jones have both passed on, making this potentially a story where the main characters die at the end, and while that might make a decent country song, it can also send your audience home depressed. But “George & Tammy” opts for a hopeful finale — maybe the sweetest scene in the whole series, if the tears in my eyes are anything to go by — that should leave you feeling good.
‘George & Tammy’
Where: Showtime, CMTV and Paramount
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
Streaming: Showtime and Paramount+, any time starting Sunday