An honest and utterly engrossing movie biography of country music star Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) works in unexpected ways. It shatters hillbilly stereotypes while mostly eschewing the conventions of the musical biopic, and its offbeat and inspired casting offers no less than four great performances that few had anticipated. Only in its more familiar (if no less interesting) third act does the picture falter somewhat; even so, it's still one of the best films of the 1980s.
Adapted for the screen by Kentucky-born Tom Rickman (The River Rat, The Reagans) from Lynn's autobiography (with George Vecsey), the film traces the future star's child-bride romance in the backwoods of Kentucky with Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who married Loretta (Sissy Spacek) in 1948, when she was just 13 years old. Doolittle, known to Loretta as "Doo" but to everyone else as "Mooney" (owing to his days smuggling moonshine), having fought in France during the war and far from the confines of the Appalachian Mountains, wants more than life there has to offer. As whiskey runner Lee Dollarhide (William Sanderson) points out, Doo has just three options in the backwoods community of Butcher Hollow: "coal mine, moonshine, or movin' down the line."
Despite a promise to Loretta's father (Levon Helm) never to move his daughter far from home, Doo packs his bags and heads for Washington State, sending for Loretta after he's saved up enough money. They have several children, but life there isn't much better. He gives her a guitar as an anniversary present, and soon realizes she has a natural talent as both a songwriter and a singer, and together they embark on building her a career.
Coal Miner's Daughter is a revelation in several respects, not the least of which is how well it dramatizes the difficult (but not always unhappy) life in the hills of Kentucky. Lynn's family lives in a house with no electricity, no running water. There's not even a dirt road leading up to house, just a brush-covered path. A package from Sears & Roebuck with new shoes for all the children is considered a Big Deal, and Lynn's father scolds one of the kids for messing with the radio - they simply don't have the money to buy a new battery.
The community isn't the cliched poor-but-happy-sharecropper type. Rather, and this seems to reflect Lynn's own approach to life in general, is one that takes the good with the bad. She and her neighbors enjoy a night out at the local grange where they dance and auction off homemade pies. Later, when Loretta and Doo pursue Lynn's music career, they are charmingly naive and ambitious, and the equally quaint, back-room studio atmosphere of the industry of the period (one cramped homemade studio nails sleeping bags to wall to control the noise) is endlessly fascinating.
Lynn apparently asserted her rights when Universal optioned Coal Miner's Daughter, personally selecting an initially reluctant Sissy Spacek to play her and Brit Michael Apted (the Up series, The World is Not Enough) to direct. She picked Apted on the grounds that as an outsider he wouldn't approach the material with preconceived notions about hillbilly life, unlike Americans exposed to years of Ma & Pa Kettle, Jed Clampett and Hee-Haw. Apted's background making television documentaries was an obvious asset as well, and the look of the film is astonishingly authentic. The overall look of these scenes, as reflected in Ralf D. Bode's cinematography, vaguely recalls the Robert Altman-directed, Vilmos Zsigmond-photographed McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).
The inspired casting sticks to non-stars like Tommy Lee Jones, The Band's Levon Helm, and Beverly D'Angelo (as Patsy Cline). Spacek and Jones hail from Texas, Helm from Arkansas, and most of the rest of the cast consisted of locals like Phyllis Boyens (as Loretta's mother), all of which adds to the verisimilitude. Except for Jones's unconvincingly-dyed red hair (they might just have well have left it its natural color) the film strikes no false notes.
D'Angelo was singled out for praise for her few scenes late in the film, but this is as much the result of Rickman's script, which subtly references Cline throughout, her songs frequently heard in the background on car radios and the like. By the time Lynn finally meets her, the character has been so built up D'Angelo mostly just runs with what was a great part. Still, it's a shame the actress didn't reprise the character for the Cline bio Sweet Dreams (1985).
Spacek won a well-deserved Oscar for her mesmerizing transformation. So many of these musical bios feature better-established stars playing dress-up, imitating rather than inhabiting the characters they play, but Spacek really is almost like an extension of the real Loretta Lynn. Helm is equally fine as Loretta's father; if not for his familiarity as a musician many probably would have assumed he was another non-actor plucked out of a Kentucky coal mine for the part. It's no wonder the film has the cult following it has, or that the line between the manufactured reality of the film and the real Lynn (still performing at 70) have, for many fans, become blurred. Even Lynn herself confesses that the film so frequently nails the essence of her early life, especially her parents, that she hasn't been able to sit through it since its initial release.
Until its last act the film avoids the cliches of such movies, largely by honestly depicting both Doo and Loretta in unglamorized, non-sanitized terms. It avoids turning Doo into the dead weight other movie biographies of female celebrities often resort to, and he's shown to be instrumental to Lynn's success. Ultimately, it's their difficult but lasting romance, combined with the mixed emotions Lynn feels toward her early life of poverty, rather than her career as a country music star, that is the heart of the picture.
Video & Audio
Coal Miner's Daughter: 25th Anniversary Edition is presented in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image does justice to the subtle lighting and use of color which might easily be compromised were the film full frame, not enhanced or in less pristine condition. The English audio is presented in both 5.1 Dolby Digital (which, naturally, makes the musical numbers come alive) and its original mono. Mono tracks in French and Spanish are included, along with French, Spanish, and what Universal calls English "SDH" (subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing).
The DVD's supplements are welcome if not overwhelming in number. (Oddly, there's no trailer or promotional material at all.) They include a Feature Commentary with Sissy Spacek and Director Michael Apted. The latter's experience as a documentarian/interviewer helps considerably, as he asks Spacek many probing questions throughout. Next Tommy Lee Jones Remembers Coal Miner's Daughter, which also finds Apted interviewing the actor about his approach the character and memories of the production. It runs nine minutes and is full frame. This is followed by An Exclusive Interview with Loretta Lynn and Director Michael Apted, which was filmed at Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter Museum in Nashville. Sets and props from the film are featured, including the reproduction of Lynn's childhood home, apparently shipped to Nashville sometime after filming.
In what surely must rank as one of the strangest extras ever included on a DVD, President George Bush Sr. Salutes the American Film Institute and Coal Miner's Daughter. This five-minute excerpt, from a September 1989 event, has then-President Bush ramble on incoherently about the War on Drugs, providing the film industry "unfettered access to foreign markets," and extending Marilyn McCoo an invitation to the White House. He does mention Coal Miner's Daughter, but only in passing. Why this was included is a mystery. Maybe someone at Universal grabbed the wrong tape.
You don't have to be a country music fan to enjoy Coal Miner's Daughter. It's less about Loretta Lynn's meteoric rise, fall, and rise than it is about life in a part of America almost never dramatized with any realism in the movies. It's also about a difficult but rewarding romance between two people who help each other out of a dead-end life with charming naivete and a determination to make their lives better.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.