In Wild Rose, a Glaswegian with her heart in Nashville aspires to become the queen of country music | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

In Wild Rose, a Glaswegian with her heart in Nashville aspires to become the queen of country music 

Jessie Buckley shines as a singer whose life is already one long country song.

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It's hard to believe that a genre as vital to American popular music as country (and its cousin, country and western) had a bad rap for a while among many dwellers in major northern cities, who looked down their noses at what they mistook as simple tunes for the unsophisticated. Musical forms come and go, of course; for instance, the big-band era, born in the midst of the Depression, effectively ended with the close of World War II, yet its sound recently has been making a comeback. But country music is singular in that it has long had a distinctly regional flavor. It reflects the values of tight-knit small-town or remote communities where home and family are paramount, and often expresses a world-weary lament for bygone better days. Historically it has addressed class issues and hard times, which may in part be why, in a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing exponentially, this musical format is again robust, extending its appeal well beyond rural areas.

Witness the revival of bluegrass, an acoustic offshoot of country that informed one of the Coen brothers' best films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and the enduring influence of 1960s and '70s country rock: among the top-ten touring music acts last year, country rocker Kenny Chesney grossed $114,333,176 on the road, pretty impressive when compared to globally popular U2's $119,203,900 take. And now riding country's groundswell comes a rousing indie movie from the UK, director Tom Harper's Wild Rose, about a working-class unwed mom who dreams of chucking her dead-end lifestyle in Glasgow for Nashville stardom. The movie speaks—and sings—volumes about heartache and cherished dreams, the stuff of which country is made.

Irish actress-singer Jessie Buckley (Beast, HBO's Chernobyl) is a knockout as music-mad, redheaded twentysomething Rose-Lynn Harlan, a bombshell not just because of her looks and irrepressible spirit but also because of the chaos that follows wherever she goes: impulse control is not among her talents. Newly released after a yearlong prison stretch for heroin possession, the aspiring country singer makes a beeline for the arms of her boyfriend; only later does she head home to her disapproving mother, Marion (Julie Walters), who was left to care for Rose-Lynn's two young children, Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and Lyle (Adam Mitchell). Their reunion is not exactly joyous, because more than anything the irresponsible Rose-Lynn would rather be in Tennessee.

The artist as a train wreck waiting to happen is a familiar subject in movies about country, from Jeff Bridges's Bad Blake in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart (2009) to Bradley Cooper's reiteration last year of A Star Is Born to biopics like James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005), about Johnny Cash, and Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light (2015), about Hank Williams. When women are in the spotlight, the scripts often revolve around love, marriage, and children almost as much as the music, as in Michael Apted's Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), Karel Reisz's Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams (1985), and Felix van Groeningen's drama about Belgian bluegrass singers in love, The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012).

Wild Rose has a foot in both camps, with Rose-Lynn both wanting and resisting reconciliation with her family as she recklessly plows ahead, grasping at any opportunity to make it big. She uses people, beguiling them with her charm and pluck while dissembling or outright lying through her teeth. She breaks promises to her children, who so yearn for her love. She disses her parole advocate in court, correcting him that she is a "country"—not "country and western"—singer. (That distinction seems to rest largely on orchestrations, simpler string instruments like banjo, fiddle, guitar, autoharp, and dulcimer for country versus instruments with a bigger sound, like steel guitar, slide guitar, and drums for country and western.) Before long Rose-Lynn takes advantage of the woman whose house she cleans, an upper-crust Anglo African culture lover (Sophie Okonedo) who bankrolls her trip to London to meet a top music broadcaster (BBC Radio 2's Bob Harris, playing himself). He advises her to write her own songs; she has doubts.

In her obsession to get to Nashville—she claims she is not Scottish but American in her soul—what Rose-Lynn doesn't realize is that her life is one country song writ large. It's not at all strange that a Glaswegian could so identify with American country music, given that the format's roots are in the English, Irish, and Scottish folk ballads that early immigrants brought with them when they settled along the Atlantic seaboard and in the south. "Three chords and the truth" is her motto, tattooed on her arm, but even though the pain and longing in her beautiful voice are real, like many a complex, dysfunctional personality she has trouble facing the truth about herself.

Harper, who previously directed Buckley in the 2016 BBC-TV miniseries War & Peace, has spoken of his rapport with his star, as has screenwriter Nicole Taylor, who worked with her on writing lyrics for some of this film's original songs. The 29-year-old Buckley, who comes from a musical family, launched her career in 2008 competing on the BBC talent show I'd Do Anything, which led that same year to a role in the West End revival of A Little Night Music. She clearly understands Rose-Lynn's fire in the belly and her upward climb, and if the title character resolves her problems perhaps a little too tidily by the end, Wild Rose nonetheless feels authentic. Rose-Lynn might or might not ever be the next queen of country, but by facing adversity head-on and writing from the heart, she's exactly why millions have embraced this music as their own.   v

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