Country Gold

Country Gold (2022)

Country Gold had its international première at Glasgow Film Festival 2023

Country Gold begins with Troyal Brux (played by its director Mickey Reece, who also co-wrote with John Selvidge) being celebrated in an annual TV special of The Gail Williams Show for being “the number one singer in America, selling more records than Michael Jackson and Madonna – and he’s doing it with country music.” Asked in an interview who would top the list if he could meet any country legend today, Troyal nominates George Jones (Reece regular Ben Hall) – but hesitates when asked what he would say to him.

Troyal will soon get his chance. For George writes to Troyal, stating that he watched the show, and inviting the younger singer/guitarist to come to Nashville that weekend to “see him off”. Questioned by his pregnant wife Jamie (Leah N.H. Philpott) as to what that phrase means exactly, Troyal will say, “It doesn’t matter where he’s going, it matters where he’s been” – but in this film, the future and the past will be in constant dialogue, as an old-timer meets an up-and-comer, as driving ambition clashes with remorse, and as innocence runs head-on into experience. “He’s on his victory lap while I’m on the home stretch,” as Troyal says of George, In fact, while Troyal looks forward, George is planning to put his life on hold, intending to be cryogenically frozen the next day so that he can restart his life later when his disreputable history has been long forgotten.

The invitation comes at a point where Troyal is at a crossroads. A homespun ‘Oklahoma boy done good’ with a clean-cut image, he has reached the peak of his career, but is not sure where to go next. His commitment to touring and commercial work means that he only rarely sees his wife Jamie and adoring young sons Nicholas (Decker Franklin) and Christopher (Reed Franklin) – one of whose names he cannot even remember – and while Jamie loves her husband, she also tells him, “I feel like we’re losing you.” 

Troyal has decisions to make, about both what sort of musician and what sort of husband and father he wants to be – and George will prove not only a mentor and rôle model, but also a cautionary exemplum and a temptation. For this hard-drinking, hard-living idol has seen and done it all – and as, over this long dark(ish) night of the soul, George passes the baton to Troyal, regarding his successor with equal disdain and envy, it is unclear whether the younger ‘country superstar’ is destined to follow in his hero’s footsteps down a long road of divorce, dissolution and disappointment, or is about to forge his own future, transforming into something new. Meanwhile the next generation waits its turn.

Troyal is an extraordinary egotist. He imagines that he is as heroic as “a policeman or a firefighter saving lives” because, as he puts it, “I’m saving souls with my tight-ass voice.” Yet one of the running jokes in Country Gold is that despite his stratospheric record sales, barely anyone in Nashville recognises him. And as he looks in the mirror, practising lines for future conversations, he seems uncertain who he really is, or how much of his “loyal, faithful good ol’ boy” reputation is just an act. George and his loser drinking buddy Juno (Joe Cappa) will put that to the test with this walk on the wild side, seducing the wide-eyed naïf in their midst with booze, cocaine and women (Whit Kunschik, Danielle Evon Ploeger, Savannah Wilson).

Set in 1994, and playing like a surreal country remix of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With André (1981), Country Gold is a sort-of comedy, funny in every sense, with a simple-seeming story frequently disrupted by all manner of alienation effects: old-school monochrome presentation (apart from the televised opening and a bloody steak), a narrator (Cate Jones) who corrects statements made by characters, children with voices processed to make them sound like adults, crudely animated storybook inserts, strange sonic distortions, flashbacks of questionable reliability, fantasy musical numbers, trip sequences, and a final scene that comes right out of left field. It might appear slight, but this night of sex and drugs and country-and-western encompasses the arrogance of success, the fleetingness of celebrity and the ravages of time itself. And like all the best country songs, it comes steeped in melancholy and regret. 

Beautifully shot by DP Samuel Calvin, Country Gold is like a lost moment, frozen in time. It was made as the second film in Reece’s loose musical trilogy that began with his Elvis-inflected Alien (2017) – but while we wait for the third to be born, this film’s focus on legacy and intergenerational conflict in the Nashville scene makes it an excellent gender-switched companion piece to Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts (2022). Meanwhile, full of artistic reflections and peculiar detours, it provides further evidence that Reece is one of the most interesting and eccentric independent filmmakers working in America – but far from Hollywood – today. With films like Climate of the Hunter (2019), Agnes (2021) and now this, Reece’s backward-looking œuvre may just be the future of original, entirely idiosyncratic cinema.

strap: Mickey Reece’s countrified comedy traces a night spent in Nashville by a rising and a falling star of the music scene

© Anton Bitel