A still of Mickey Reece, Ben Hall, and others in the film COUNTRY GOLD (2022).

Fantasia 2022 Review: Parallel-Universe Music Biopic COUNTRY GOLD

Oklahoma auteur Mickey Reece has become something of a festival darling these past several years, turning out acclaimed feature after acclaimed feature on a shoestring. In the North American genre festival space, his work is everywhere. And yet somehow, Country Gold is the first feature of Reece’s that I’ve seen. I don’t know if it’s a good jumping-on point for his prolific back catalogue, but you know what, you go to war with the screener you have.

Country Gold centres on country singer-songwriter megastar Troyal Brooks (Reece), who has sold more records than either Madonna or Michael Jackson. Accordingly, he’s got a massively inflated ego, declaring himself a hero while losing touch with his wife and children. In spite of his success, he only really wants one thing: to meet his own hero, country-music legend George Jones. But when Jones invites him to Nashville for a sit-down chat, things get surreal quick, as the legend’s anecdotes over a steak dinner herald a dive into a world of drugs, sex (well, “massages”), introspection, and cryogenic freezing.

Protagonist Troyal is in nearly every frame of Country Gold, and Reece’s casting of himself in the lead role is mystifying, given how utterly unsuited he seems for the part. Maybe it’s intentional, for reasons I’ll get to, but the more Reece, as Troyal, speaks of being a “real good ole boy,” the less his hyper-regular suburban voice rings true. Like many of the film’s performances, Reece is understated and conversational, which on one hand lends the film a quiet earnestness, but on the other hand plays a little flat for a character who seems intended as larger-than-life. He’s definitely hard to buy as a platinum-selling musical celebrity.

For all my misgivings about Reece’s performance, the same can’t be said of his filmmaking, which despite the film’s talkiness is full of verve and experimentation. Though the film’s faux print aging doesn’t quite work for a movie set in 1994, the black-and-white cinematography is effective at creating an atmosphere of decline and melancholy. While most of the film plays out in conventionally staged dialogue sequences, Reece peppers stylistic flourishes throughout: iris-ins, disconcertingly filtered voice recordings, the odd bit of narration, some beautifully theatrical compositions, and even animated sequences. If it’d come out fifteen years ago, I’d have accused it of imitating Tarantino, but these choices instead feel driven by the story’s needs…with the possible exception of a clanging Boogie Nights lift towards the end.

Reece’s script, too, despite being a bit monotonous in pace, is full of delightful side characters and pieces of dialogue. As Troyal disappears down his seedy Nashville back-alley rabbit hole, Reece amusingly undercuts the kind of self-important philosophising that often fills drug-fueled movies, including a spectacular monologue about Star Trek. Thanks to a strong supporting cast, especially Ben Hall, who lends bile and gravitas to his role as Jones, it’s done great justice, for the most part.

Country music fans (of which I am not one) will note that “Troyal” is in fact Garth Brooks’ first name, and that the character and story bear striking resemblance to the ‘90s country superstar and his career. Brooks and Jones collaborated in real life, and Country Gold can be seen as a hypothetical exploration of that relationship, peppered with true (or truthy) details. This lends the whole production a sense of hyperreality, turning it into a surreal alternate-universe biopic. The sheer gutsiness of doing a film like this about a pseudo-subject who’s still alive, especially given the strange places this shaggy-dog story goes, makes it worth a look by itself.

Any movie about country music is also a movie about America, and Country Gold explores the American Dream with a heaping portion of regret. Both Troyal and George are kinda shitty people, and Troyal certainly is unable or unwilling to acknowledge that; even as he realises why you should never meet your heroes, he can’t apply that same thinking to his own so-called heroism. Troyal sings just one song in the film, spending much more screentime on his commercial success, fame, product endorsements, and self-promotion, and despite his constantly-repeated “good ole boy” mantra, he really isn’t one. In fact, the whole country music machine is presented as fake and self-obsessed, a facade behind which lurks a void of sex, drugs, and under no circumstances rock ‘n’ roll (apart from one brief, amusing dalliance).

There’s something about Country Gold’s obsession with fame and legend, the resentment of the past and the future equally, and the sheer American-ness of it all that rings true. One line of dialogue sums it all up: “It’s never ever enough.” Given Reece’s madcap pace of production, perhaps that’s something he identifies with.