NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Whose Country Is IMAX’s Our Country?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The good news this week is that country music finally has its own IMAX movie. The bad news this week is that country music finally has its own IMAX movie.

That also brings up this question: who cares about IMAX anymore? IMAX, for those who have been closeted with cable and the Internet in recent years, is the giant screen presentation of … giant screen dramas. Like lavish epics about dinosaurs or the Rolling Stones. Like Cinerama and even 3-D from many years ago, it’s mainly about eye candy, about big visuals, about projecting big sweeping vistas, about … bigness. Because it’s so big physically as a film format, an IMAX presentation is limited to a short reel length.

In the case of Our Country, the length is 37 minutes. But it’s a hopeless task to try to cram 100 years into it, because that’s the length of country music history it attempts to span. In this particular 37 minutes, what you get as a viewer is very short shrift in terms of original content. But you get a big injection of clichés and things you already knew.

Our Country is debuting at the Opry Mills shopping center in Nashville, which is apropos, because Opry Mills is the shopping mall that the Gaylord Entertainment Company imposed over the former Opryland amusement park. And then Gaylord shut itself of any interest in the mall. And Our Country is a Gaylord presentation. It began many years ago by an independent video production company sanctioned by Gaylord. The film’s production became bogged down in a fog of lawsuits over a fog of stuff, mainly about content control, as I understood it. Although, as far as I am able to penetrate through the maze, there’s not much content left. Gaylord had the original content re-worked into this version, which is Gaylord’s vision of the history of country.

Gaylord, bless its little heart, just doesn’t do music well. Never has. As far as I can tell, the original musical sequences are now incorporated into a you-are-there history. A squeaky-clean, sort of cheery Up-With-People, antiseptic song-and-dance of country music. It has all the earnestness of a high school production of Wilder’s Our Town or Sandburg’s The People, Yes. Mainly, it’s a bunch of music videos loosely connected. With a whole lot of IMAX big vistas: helicopter shots looking straight down on New York City skyscrapers, purple mountains’ majesties, the fruited plain, from sea to shining sea.

If you’re going to assume the mantle of presenting a country music history, you know, you should really be prepared to do it thoroughly or suffer the consequences. In this 37-minute history, we learn that country music is descended from an Irish pennywhistle which immigrants brought to America. And, boy, are there a whole bunch of immigrants. There’s so much grainy black-and-white newsreel footage in here that after a while you feel like you’re trapped in a March of Time newsreel from the 1950s.

The narration, delivered by Hal Holbrook in his Mark Twain mode, is as purple as the purple mountains’ majesties. I mean, “nation of big shoulders, with a ribbon of steel for a belt.”

Some good artists are misused flagrantly here in an effort to provide movement to the script’s exposition. Marty Stuart is wasted singing Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” (a loosely-country train song to accompany the “ribbon of steel” which is of course the railroad). Alabama has neither the vocal range nor the natural fit to try to tackle Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” (in a scene depicting “the dignity of the working man”). Dwight Yoakam is not a credible street busker from the ‘20s.

Our Country is heavily Nashville-centric and features — naturally — such Gaylord holdings as the Grand Ole Opry and the General Jackson showboat.

How you can purport to tell the history of country music without mentioning Bill Monroe is a talent that I’m afraid I could never master. Also missing: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and George Strait. As is the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and friends. The Outlaw movement of Willie, Waylon and associates is represented here solely by Jo Dee Messina — on top of a mesa — singing “I Wear My Own Kind of Hat” while down below a horseback rider tries to race a motorcycle. Heavy symbolism.

This film looks very dated: when you present already faded minor artists as visions of the Opry’s future — as is done here with Kevin Denney, Brad Martin and Sonya Isaacs — your credibility level is on the downward curve. And a long closeup of Leigh Nash (from the faded Christian group Sixpence None the Richer) can only puzzle viewers. And why Roger McGuinn of the Byrds should be included as a central figure is a mystery — as is the inclusion of the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” as a major country song.

And then you have narration introducing Patsy Cline as a voice for all eternity, to be followed by Martina McBride tackling “Walking After Midnight” in a weird mime dream scene. Martina McBride is a gifted artist, but she’s no Patsy Cline. Why can’t we hear — and see — Patsy Cline?

There are, to be sure, some fine moments in the film: the clips of Jimmie Rodgers are great. Alan Jackson singing Hank Williams at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville is a natural. Loretta Lynn singing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” is gratifying (although it would have been nice to actually hear the Carters themselves).

Lee Ann Womack brings her own definition of monuments to the IMAX experience with her own majestic mountains. As she sings “Living in the Promiseland” in her fetching low-cut blouse, an American flag behind her left shoulder is standing stiffly at attention in the strong breeze (which, oddly enough, isn’t tousling her hair). Believe me, if I had been there I would have been standing at attention, too.