By Alan Hurst
I remember reluctantly sitting in a movie theatre in the spring of 1980 to watch Michael Apted’s film version of Loretta Lynn’s autobiography “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. At that point I didn’t know a lot about the singer except that we shared a birthday (April 14), she sometimes showed up on the TV series Hee Haw, and she could also be heard on the radio whenever we went for take-out at the local fish and chip shop near our cottage. They always had the radio tuned to the local country and western station – my musical tastes in 1980 veered much more towards pop, but that was about to change.
Within a few weeks of seeing the film I had devoured the book, pulled a bunch of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline albums out of the library, and that summer I cajoled a few of friends into going with me to see Lynn and her occasional singing partner, Conway Twitty, in concert in Toronto. My immersion into the world of Loretta Lynn was complete, thanks to a movie that still stands as a prime example of a near perfect film biography and a revelatory look at the world of country music in the sixties and seventies.
The film opens in Butcher Holler, Kentucky at the end of World War II when 13-year old Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek) meets Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones) and in short order becomes his wife and the mother of four children by the time she’s 19 (two more kids would follow). After a move to Washington State, we see Loretta singing casually at home with the kids, but Doolittle sees more and pushes Loretta to start performing at local honky tonks where her acute stage fright slowly gives away to a tentative confidence as both a performer and songwriter. Under Doolittle’s guidance the two leave the kids with her mother and hit the road to promote her first single. The two are such neophytes that she hits the country music charts without them even knowing it. The film then follows the couple’s turbulent relationship and she quickly ascends to the top rank of country music performers – a major achievement for a female singer and songwriter in an era that was dominated by men.
One of the many things that director Apted and screenwriter Tom Rickman get right is the unvarnished, respectful look we get into a life that is completely alien to most us. Whether it’s the rural Kentucky poverty, life on the road, performing at country fair in the rain, or getting a glimpse of the backstage chaos of the Grand Ol’ Opry stage, we’re seeing a world that feels painstakingly and honestly recreated. It’s also a treasured glimpse into a world that really doesn’t exist anymore.
Visually, there isn’t a false note and the script gives both Spacek and Jones the room to grow from naivete to early middle age with tremendous believability. For me the film is as much about the marriage of Loretta and Doolittle as it is about her journey as a performer. This was not a storybook romance from either point of view, but the two are committed to each other. If Jones’ Doolittle comes off as the villain of the piece because of his drinking and womanizing, at least we get to see firsthand the inspiration for so many of Lynn’s pure and perfect country tunes.
Sissy Spacek received love letters from critics for her work here and, as good as she has been in many other film and television roles, this is far and away her best work. She is completely believable as both the young Loretta and her adult counterpart. She captures the character’s innocence, forthright approach and quick witted intelligence perfectly. If you’ve ever listened to Lynn be interviewed, you can see how Spacek embodies the woman she’s playing. It’s beyond eerie and fascinating to watch. Adding even more legitimacy to her performance is the fact that she does her own singing and it’s a nice match to Lynn’s actual vocals. Spacek really delivers. In addition to the Oscar she won for Best Actress that year, she also received a Grammy nomination for her vocals on the film’s soundtrack.
Tommy Lee Jones has the less sympathetic role and he excels at showing us Doolittle’s cockiness and bravado, but also the hits to the ego the character takes when Loretta has made it as a performer, and he doesn’t know what his role is anymore. She’s excited by what she now has access to, and he’s lost. Jones makes you really feel for the guy, even when he’s at his most selfish and destructive.
The Band’s Levon Helm has some beautiful early scenes as Loretta’s father – a strong, quiet and heartbreaking performance. And Beverly D’Angelo briefly knocks everyone else off the screen with her stunning, galvanizing appearance as Patsy Cline, the legendary singer who became best friends with Loretta. D’Angelo makes Cline both glamourous and raucous and completely dazzles with her own vocals on a couple of key Cline tunes. Her appearance in a gold suit on the Opry stage singing “Sweet Dreams” is magical.
The film ends with Spacek singing Lynn’s signature tune and title of the film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, and it’s the perfect way to wrap things up. Lynn’s homage to the home of her youth, her parents and yearning for a much simpler time stirs our own longing to know more about Lynn and, more importantly, her music.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.