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Three chords and the truth

BRENDAN McMANUS  ::  Wild Rose film review (Entertainment One; 2019)

Three chords and the truth

The much maligned country music has one thing in its favour, the ability to be real and authentic about people’s often tragic lives. “Three Chords and the Truth”, a phrase attributed to Harlan Howard describing Country music in the 1950s, is the tattoo that the main character sports in this story, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Irish actress and singer, Jessie Buckley).

This is a redemption story, the main protagonist, Rose-Lynn, is released from jail and is trying to get her life together. The challenge is huge: pick up with her two estranged children who’ve been minded by her mum, and simultaneously keep her dream alive of being a country singer and going to the home of Country music, Nashville. The central tension is that her mother, brilliantly played by Julie Walters, is frosty and angrily disapproving of her abandoning of her two children, who hardly know her. The film pivots around these central relationships and we see a hard side of Walters that, though an unusual role for her, is superbly acted in terms of the frustrated mother having to pick up the pieces of her daughter’s chaotic life.

The human drama of a single parent struggling to connect with two disillusioned children and trying to hold on to a dream of being a singer is played out against a working class, often overly grim Glasgow setting. The problems are seemingly intractable and Rose-Lynn seems to be falling back into her old ways as she is often absent at key moments and lets the children down. Unable to get her old singing job back, she takes up employment with a wealthy family, as a cleaner, who champion her singing career. The guileless wife at least is completely sold while the husband is more cynical.

The soundtrack, sung by lead actor Jessie Buckley herself is really first class and the soundtrack is in perfect sympathy with the roller coaster of emotions involved. The actor’s tattoo, ‘Three chords and the truth’, is the philosophy she lives by and indeed her life echoes this very closely. In fact, the easy money she is offered for performing at this wealthy family’s party all falls apart when she is faced with her past, and has to tell the wife the truth. Similarly, a previous meeting with a famous BBC2 Country D.J., she is told to ‘find her own voice’ and to live in her own story and truth.

The drama builds up to a high point where, seemingly having given up on her dream of getting to Nashville, her mother in a rare moment of compassion offers her the opportunity on a plate. Without wanting to spoil the pivotal moment, let’s just say that the theme here is desire, the fulfilment of this lifetime dream which has unexpectedly arrived but which works out in exactly the opposite way to what we expect. She has this epiphany where she realises the futility and shallow nature of it (tawdry commercialism and exploitation), and makes the homeward journey having come to some important realisations.

The solution is eventually found at home in a great synthesis of all these themes in a way that integrates the reality of family life and the keeping of a dream alive. The human struggle to get there and all the dead ends is where the film excels; there are no easy solutions or Hollywood endings but there is a way through that is based on integrity and relationships.

From an Ignatian point of view the film is about desire, how easily characters are sidetracked into superficial ones (selfishness and external appearances), and how it takes real work to get to the deeper and more satisfying ones (responsibility and meaning making through music). The only weakness in this film is that this conversion and change of lifestyle, that is often impossible for many ex-cons, never is explored in the spiritual depth that it deserves, beyond a superficial ‘follow your dreams’. In fact, it is the painful confrontation of dreams with reality, within messy human relationships where the transcendent pointers lie.

Worth watching. Definitely worth getting the soundtrack!