Sunday 4 March 2007

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Michael Apted

Country music singers seem to live the sort of lives that translate well to biopics. Johnny Cash wasn't the first and while he was a great subject, he may not even have been the best. Tammy Wynette is way up there on that list and Loretta Lynn's not far behind. Born in the mountains where 'you either coal mine, moonshine or move on down the line', she was married at thirteen, pregnant at fourteen, mother of four kids by the time she was seventeen, a grandma at 29 and yet she still found the time to become a major star.

Sissy Spacek is awesome as Lynn. Over thirty when the film was made, she is completely believable as the thirteen year old Loretta Webb and completely believable as an adult; she has the uncanny ability to look rather beautiful or truly ugly without much apparent effort, something she's made good use of throughout her career; and she's versatile enough to sing all the songs here herself. Her husband is a GI who returned from the war to Kentucky with an attitude and obviously something else too, seeing as he heads straight for this thirteen year old girl with a vengeance. He's Doolittle Lynn and he's played by Tommy Lee Jones who at once looks incredibly young and yet exactly the same as I know him from much later films like Men in Black and The Fugitive.

However dubious chasing after a thirteen year old seems, he does get married to her, before even getting her into bed, and they stay together throughout. It's Doo who thinks her singing along to the radio is so good that he buys her a guitar for their wedding anniversary. He sets her up to sing in public, however much she doesn't want to do it and he pays for her first recording session. He takes her picture and mails it out with her record to every country DJ in the book. In short he's the one who sets up her up for the future we all know she did so great in.

The two of them are very good together on screen, which takes a lot given the relationship that they had to portray. Loretta and Doo stayed married all the way down the line, for almost fifty years until Doo's death in 1996. It was a rocky road, with minor league cheating and violence, though the cheating gave her some of her best songs and as she once said, 'he never hit me one time that I didn't hit him back twice.' They also lasted through her mentor Patsy Cline's death, her nervous breakdown on stage and other issues.

There's a lot of humour in here, though it's unfortunate humour. Loretta lived the middle of nowhere in Kentucky, in Butcher Holler, and once married the Lynns lived on a farm in Washington, KY, that didn't have a phone. It sounds rude to say it but she really didn't have much of a clue about anything. She doesn't know what charts are, even though she's number fourteen nationwide with her debut single; she gets one radio station in trouble by describing her husband as 'horny' live on air even though she doesn't know what it means; she doesn't even know what 'dues' are when it's pointed out to her that she'll have to pay plenty of them. She's a backwoods hick for a long, long while indeed.

The film is solid and Spacek's Oscar was well deserved. There's plenty left out though, not least Crystal Gayle, Lynn's sister who isn't even named at any point in the film. There's no mention of her son's drowning of the controversy that many of her bluntly honest songs caused, covering divorce, life under birth control, the loss of teenage virginity and the Vietnam war.

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