‘Heart Strings’ Review: Schmaltzy Musical Drama About a Rigged Reality Show Is Pleasant but Predictable (2024)

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be stated at the outset that “Heart Strings,” a musical drama about a young couple competing against each other in a reality TV show, was co-written (with director Ate de Jong) by Steven Gaydos, a 30-year veteran of Variety. As he has indicated here and elsewhere, Gaydos is a man with an abiding passion for country and Americana music, which likely explains why, for all the offkey moments in this passably pleasant but utterly predictable indie, even some of the clichés resound with a faint but perceptible ring of truth.

It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory — or, more precisely, a competition for fame and a $1 million recording contract. Billie Carton (Maggie Koerner), a widowed maintenance attendant at the cemetery where her war hero husband is laid to rest, and Lucky Fontana (Sam Varga), a garbage collector whose own military background consists primary of a short-lived stint at West Point, meet cute during an open mic night at a bar in Louisville, Ky. Her set is cut short by an unimpressed host; he scarcely makes it through his own song. Still, they take a shine to each other and decide it would be a dandy idea to audition together for “Americana Dream,” a new reality TV series trolling for prospects in the city.

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Trouble is, the show only accepts married couples as contestants, forcing them to pose as husband and wife to make the cut. (Don’t worry: The relationship remains platonic until they’re genuinely smitten.) It’s only after they’re selected that Billie and Lucky learn they’ll be the only couple performing before the cameras while “a thousand influencers” judge remotely. And they’ll be expected to compete against each other.

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Blame it on Kingsgate Records mogul Ray Pursell (Stephan Said), a character so robustly sleazy that you half-expect to see a cleanup crew following behind him to mop up the slime in his wake. (To his credit, Said plays the character with almost scary conviction.) Pursell is eager — no, make that desperate — to find a new Americana star for his label now that his conspicuously younger wife, Precious Blue (a well-cast Carly Johnson), is now old enough to qualify as a legacy act, and relies on singing commercial jingles to supplement her dwindling income.

You don’t have to be told that, in addition to his many other sins, Pursell is a physically abusive husband, right? OK, let’s move on.

Initially, Billie and Lucky are cynically deemed “green as a fistful of bunching onions” by behind-the-scenes videographer Lee Post (A.J. Haynes, who frequently tucks the movie into her back pocket, and comes damn near close to walking off with it entirely). But Pursell likes green — especially when it comes to Billie, whom he views as low-handing fruit he’d like to pluck, just like he did years earlier with Precious. And Lucky? Precious eventually warms to the idea of being his mentor for the show, if only so she can do some plucking of her own.

“She’s cute,” Lee grudgingly admits. “He’s the man-child every woman wants to fix.” But Pursell views the couple in a slightly different way: “a happy, loving couple soon to be at each other’s throats.”

Sure enough, the whole thing is a set-up for drawing viewers to the spectacle of attractive and talented young marrieds swapping ever more biting insults in every episode after their performances. Despite the fact Billie and Lucky are (Are you ready for this? Are you sitting down?) slowly falling in love for real, their testy on-camera exchanges threaten to undermine, if not obliterate, their blooming romance. Adding to their stress: They’re incessantly monitored by Lee and aspiring documentary filmmaker O.D. Orozco (Jonathan De Azevedo) via cameras strategically hidden throughout their lavish Louisville hotel room.

Let’s face it: At this point in our multimedia culture, satirizing reality TV shows is like nuking fish in a barrel. Still, “Heart Strings” occasionally amuses in the course of hitting easy targets, while confirming a whole slew of worst suspicions in the bargain. Remember those “thousand influencers” mentioned earlier? They’re all on the Kingsgate payroll, and can be overridden in the control room.

As for the love story at the heart of things, real-life singer-songwriters Koerner and Varga, both making their movie debuts, inhabit their roles with unpolished sincerity, if not technical skill. More important, they’re sufficiently experienced to entertainingly sell a variety of original country/Americana songs, ranging from swaggeringly bro-country anthem (“You Won’t Like Country Music”) to deliciously gospel-flavored uplift (“Love is All Life is Worth”). Varga contributed several of the songs, while others are co-written by Steve Sun (Gaydos’ nom de tune).

Director de Jong sporadically flashes archival black-and-white footage of trailblazing country/Americana artists onto random objects (framed photos, mansion walls, whatever) but the effect is more distracting than enriching. It feels like a cheap attempt to add cred to a movie that, even during its fun moments, too often comes across as synthetic and/or recycled.

On the other hand, there is a place in the world for formulaic diversions, and there’s a better than even money chance that, as Miss Jean Brodie might opine, for audiences who truly enjoy this sort of music, this is the sort of movie they might like. Besides, the opening credits song, “Americana,” is sung by the Bellamy Brothers. You can’t get more country than that.

‘Heart Strings’ Review: Schmaltzy Musical Drama About a Rigged Reality Show Is Pleasant but Predictable (2024)
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