In a stunning coincidence, Judge Bryan Pope knows a guy who knows another guy whose niece was also a coal miner's daughter, so he is uniquely qualified to review this film.
Ever since you left me, I've done nothin' but wrong.
There are stars, and there are legends. Then there's Loretta Lynn. The first woman to be named CMA's Entertainer of the Year, Lynn is widely regarded as a national treasure thanks to her largely autobiographical songs, intelligence, and irresistible backwoods charm. Her story was given the big-screen treatment in 1980's crowd-pleasing, Academy Awarding-winning Coal Miner's Daughter, an entertaining, stunningly performed film that falls just short of being a certified classic.
Facts of the Case
Beginning with her roots in the Kentucky mining town of Butcher Holler, Coal Miner's Daughter chronicles the life of country music legend Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek). After marrying the brash, brutish Doolittle Mooney (Tommy Lee Jones) at age 14, Lynn raised six children while peddling her music to radio DJs across the country. Lynn's first hit song, "Honky-Tonk Girl," landed her multiple appearances on the Grand Ol' Opry, where she met Patsy Cline (Beverly D'Angelo), forming a friendship that would influence her music and her life.
"A singer has to continue to grow or else they're just like last night's cornbread—stale and dry."
This is a Loretta Lynn-ism, obviously, and it sums up the country superstar better than I can. Savvy and seasoned with Lynn's trademark down-home common sense, it's a keen piece of insight to come from a blue Kentucky girl who grew up without so much as a telephone in her house. Early critics berated the young Lynn for her "stupid, ignorant hillbilly act" ("If you knew Loretta," Mooney once famously said, "you'd know that was no act."). But take Loretta's word for it: She may be ignorant, but she sure as hell ain't stupid.
That much is clear when watching Michael Apted's (Gorillas in the Mist, Blink, Nell) entertaining and adoring, if not altogether cohesive, film about Loretta Webb's metamorphosis into country music sensation Loretta Lynn. Coal Miner's Daughter is, ostensibly, a testament to the power of determination to hurtle raw talent over poverty and class. But that's to dehumanize what is, at heart, a love story, and a multi-faceted one at that. There's Lynn's devotion to her Ma, Pa and seven brothers and sisters; her love for her Smoky Mountain roots; her impenetrable bond with doomed singer Patsy Cline (the incandescent D'Angelo); her love of music; and, of course, her love for Doolittle Mooney.
The film's early scenes depicting Lynn's gritty upbringing in Butcher Holler are evocative and quaint with a sharp eye for detail (receiving a brand new pair of shoes becomes a cause for celebration), but the most fascinating aspect of Apted's film is Lynn's marriage to Doo. From the moment they say "I do," these two serve each other heaping handfuls of abuse. Beneath it, though, lays an undercurrent of mutual respect that runs deep. For all his faults—and if we are to believe Coal Miner's Daughter, they are many-Doo's gift was pushing Lynn to realize her potential. In return, Lynn recognized Mooney as a victim of her success and forgave him for his drinking and infidelity. If their marriage wasn't a match made in heaven, they at least had a mutual understanding that transcended their differences. But make no mistake: With the right handbag at her disposal, the wronged Lynn could be twice the wildcat Doo was.
The screenplay is based on Lynn's autobiography of the same name (cowritten by George Vecsey), and it's the film equivalent of a "Greatest Hits" album. All the best stories are here, but without a thematic arc tying them together: Mooney's first exposure to young Loretta Webb's cooking skills; Loretta almost shutting down a local radio station by blurting the word "horny" with cheerful innocence during a live interview (she thought it meant "goofing around"); Loretta's first appearance at the Opry with Ernest Tubb (be on the lookout for the late, great Minnie Pearl); her star struck first meeting with Cline; and, finally, her much-documented onstage breakdown. The film hints at an addiction to pills ("headache pills," as Lynn calls them), but chooses to downplay that aspect of her life.
Not that it matters. Lynn's life is chock full of enough good stories and life lessons—some comical, others tinged with despair that could fill a dozen country songs—to overcome any glossing over of Lynn's flaws. And even if Lynn's fans have heard most of the stories before (and chances are they have), they can still appreciate a trio of brilliant performances.
Spacek has proven time and again that she can do no wrong, and here she embodies the shy wallflower that Lynn apparently was in her youth. But we've seen this Spacek before, in both Carrie and Three Women. We haven't seen Spacek take on a mature, confident character the way she does in the second half of this film, so we're in no way prepared for her spot-on portrayal of the older, charismatic, outspoken Lynn audiences have embraced. She nails Lynn's speech pattern and knack for turning a phrase, but to praise her performance as mere imitation is to deny Spacek the credit she so richly deserves. Her Lynn is by turns vibrant, funny, and unsure, but always as strong and dignified as the day is long. Most astonishingly, Spacek's own pipes breathe new life into Lynn's songs, and her voice is a revelation (her only misstep is her warbling of Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight"). With Lynn so closely tied to the production (she handpicked Spacek for the role), this must have been a daunting task, but Spacek is a marvel. Her Oscar was well deserved.
Apted states that Jones was the only actor capable of portraying Doo, and I'm inclined to agree. He's rugged and hot-headed, yet capable of moments of quiet tenderness. The real surprise, though, is D'Angelo's textured portrait of Cline. Jessica Lange may have won the coveted role of Cline in Sweet Dreams (and an Oscar nod for her efforts), but D'Angelo is a more natural fit, capturing the wisdom and hint of melancholy missing from Lange's portrayal. Plus, like Spacek, D'Angelo performs her own vocals.
Coal Miner's Daughter often feels like nothing more than Lynn's oft-told anecdotes strung together on screen, but one at least gets a sense of Lynn's earthy wisdom and practicality. She may have been crowned the queen of country music several decades ago, but she'll always be a honky-tonk girl at heart.
Universal celebrates the 25th anniversary of Coal Miner's Daughter with a fine special edition. The film is cleaned up and presented in its original widescreen format with an anamorphic transfer. The transfer is lovely, nicely preserving the film's soft color schemes and displaying few signs of age. The 5.1 digital track is also strong, particularly during the film's many music sequences. Dialogue is crisp and clear, making for a pleasant listening experience.
The package includes a feature-length commentary with Spacek and Apted, and it's a mixed bag. While it's always a pleasure to hear Spacek, her memories of the film's production are sketchy. The soft-spoken, engaging Apted does his best to draw information out of her, but often with little success. "Tommy Lee Jones Remembers Coal Miner's Daughter doesn't have much meat on its bones either, but at a brief nine minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome. The disc's best feature is Michael Apted's interview with Loretta Lynn at her Coal Miner's Daughter Museum in Nashville. Lynn takes us on a tour of the museum, including a recreation of her Butcher Holler home, and recounts the development of her film and how she immediately knew Spacek was the only choice for the title role. Finally, we get "President George Bush Sr. Salutes AFI and Coal Miner's Daughter," and I'm still scratching my head over this one. While Bush Sr. does allude to Coal Miner's Daughter during this five-minute 1989 address to the American Film Institute, that's hardly the focus of his speech, which has more to do with the general state of cinema and its influence on national and world culture. An oddity here, and entirely skippable.
Layered performances from Spacek, Jones and D'Angelo elevate a disjointed rags-to-riches story, making it an immensely enjoyable biography. Fans will appreciate the spit 'n' polish Coal Miner's Daughter receives on this special edition. Recommended.
Well I like my lovin' done country style and this little girl would walk a
We wouldn't have it any other way, Loretta Lynn. All parties are acquitted.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature commentary with Sissy Spacek and director Michael Apted
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