Country music was born of hard luck lives and heartbreak, with its singers as raw and roughed up as the songs. Its early singers were the stuff of legends -- unashamed of humble beginnings, dogged by tragedy, uneasy with fame, often in search of redemption.
The stories captured the imagination of Hollywood, with filmmakers turning them into classics -- and clunkers ("Rhinestone," anyone?). It is the wail of the American heartland that appeals, and the plain-spoken lyrics make for easy plot points -- "Help me make it through the night," "She's actin' single, I'm drinkin' doubles," "Take this job and shove it," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E."
The best of these scripts that emerged cut across social and economic lines, and the music was always there when the words failed. "Country Strong," opening today, is the latest to join that rich tradition, with Gwyneth Paltrow starring as a broken singer-songwriter in search of a little saving grace. Los Angeles Times pop music critic Ann Powers and Times film critic Betsy Sharkey were asked to pick their four favorites from the past. It was mostly a peaceable process, except when it came to "Coal Miner's Daughter," and whether it was graciousness or grit that won the day, we'll never tell.
*"Tender Mercies," 1983, directed by Bruce Beresford. With Horton Foote's script as beautifully spare and unforgiving as the wind-swept roadside motel where the film is set, the purity and humility in Robert Duvall's broken singer saved by the love of a good woman and a rural Jesus is an unparalleled tale of redemption. Terrific performances, great music, wonderfully restrained.
*"Walk the Line," 2005, directed by James Mangold. Johnny Cash was a long, tall legend before Joaquin Phoenix dared step into his shoes. But he swaggered in fearlessly, swinging that guitar, tackling Cash's deep rumble, bringing a world of hurt to life. As June Carter, Reese Witherspoon added all the sass and sentiment that country boy, or the film, needed.
*"Sweet Dreams," 1985, directed by Karel Reisz. Jessica Lange and Ed Harris were terrific unearthing the tragic core of Patsy Cline and her combustible relationship with her true love, Charlie Dick. Cline was almost killed in a car wreck, and a plane crash would write the final chapter, silencing her rich maple syrup voice at 30. Downside? In Lange's lip-synch and the director's long shots, you feel the cheats.
*"Crazy Heart," 2009, directed by Scott Cooper. Loved Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, about as good as broken down and busted gets. And anything that shines a light on Ryan Bingham's edgy country sound, I'm all for. But the story felt stale, and having Duvall in the picture only reminded me how much more I liked "Tender Mercies."
*"Nashville," 1975, directed by Robert Altman. This savage, unflinchingly humane satire of the Music City hustle as part of the larger American pop dream is among Altman's riskiest and most entertaining masterworks. Its huge cast wanders the road to and from stardom, wallowing in corn and pathos as profundity lurks nearby. The great soundtrack demonstrates how good -- and bad -- country music can get.
*"Coal Miner's Daughter," 1980, directed by Michael Apted. Based on country queen Loretta Lynn's autobiography, this film is just like an old country song -- deep, but built from humble materials. Astoundingly plainspoken performances by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek as Lynn and Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Mooney, also make it one of the great films about married life.
*"Payday," 1973, directed by Daryl Duke. This mostly forgotten little shocker is like Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell" transported to central Alabama, with Rip Torn in the role of his life as a minor country star possessed by terrifying appetites and the haunting conviction that his luck is running out. Like "Mean Streets," "The Bad Lieutenant," "Leaving Las Vegas"? You'll love this.
*"O Brother, Where Art Thou?," 2000, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It's not a country music film, really, and some consider it too arch. But this surreal Homeric romp helped transform folk music into "Americana" and renewed interest in crucial subgenres, especially bluegrass. Its T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack won an album of the year Grammy and spawned its own documentary, "Down From the Mountain."