Jan. 3, 2009

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Michael Apted
Stars: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D'Angelo

What it's about. A biopic on country music legend Loretta Lynn. The film begins with 13-year-old Loretta (Sissy Spacek) helping her mama raise her many siblings. She is indeed a coal miner's daughter, living in what most other Americans would see as the direst poverty. Former vocalist/drummer for The Band, Levon Helm, plays Loretta's taciturn father, while Phyllis Boyen is her like-minded mother. Along comes ex-Army hell-raiser Mooney (Tommy Lee Jones). Mooney and Loretta connect, and he takes her away to Tacoma, Washington.

Four children later, Loretta learns to play a guitar given to her as a present by Mooney, who thinks she's a talented singer. Mooney takes her to honky tonks, where she is well received. Next step is to cut a record, then promote it in a road tour of radio stations. Loretta has a hit, makes weekly appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, and becomes the best friend of Patsy Cline (Beverly D'Angelo), at the time the most famous female country singer.

But not all is well. Moody is having trouble accepting secondary status to his now famous wife. Meanwhile, over-scheduled Loretta is showing symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Crystal Gayle, Loretta's youngest sister and a bona fide (if less talented) country star at the time of filming, never shows up in the story.

How others will see it. Coal Miner's Daughter was enthusiastically received by critics. It garnered seven Oscar nominations, and Sissy Spacek won Best Actress. It helped her cause that she did her own singing in the film, as did D'Angelo. Spacek's versions of Loretta Lynn songs are better than the vast majority of post-1975 country music radio hits, which generally lack integrity.

How I felt about it. As often happens, after watching the movie, I took a peek at wikipedia.org to verify basic accuracy. There, I learned that Loretta Lynn was often a featured singer at her Kentucky church. Her big break came at a Tacoma, Washington talent show hosted by Buck Owens. It was telecast, and seen by Zero Records co-founder Norm Burley. Burley quickly signed up Lynn.

The film presents a different version. There's no talent show. Mooney books a session at Zero. The Zero producer is so impressed that he rounds up a professional band for Lynn. Thus, the film may be guilty of over-emphasizing Mooney's role in Lynn becoming a star, although there's little doubt of his overall importance in her career rise. He was nine years older than Loretta. They never divorced, and their 48-year marriage ended with his death in 1996.

Spacek first made waves with her pathos star turn in the horror flick Carrie (1976). Her career peaked with Coal Miner's Daughter, although she evolved into a durable supporting actress. Tommy Lee Jones parlayed his tough good ole boy performance into major Hollywood stardom.

Watching Spacek and Jones dramatize Loretta's marriage, you have to wonder how it lasted. They are separated almost immediately, and it is soon obvious that Jones is restless and a womanizer. From what we see here, the marriage continued because Loretta was fertile, and because no one else (except Patsy Cline) was ever able to penetrate her outer emotional shell.

Mooney also seems to know when to cut his losses: he sends her back home to Mama after their initial incompatibility, and he gets off the tour bus once he becomes a fifth wheel. No matter where he is, Mooney seems out of place. The sole exception is that he seems to be a good, firm father.