Few movie biographies are as unflinchingly faithful to the facts of their subject as Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the unfettered and at times unflattering, exaltation of the indomitable human spirit embodied by First Lady of Country Music, Miss Loretta Lynn. Only five years earlier, Robert Altman put country music on the cinematic map with his wicked satire, Nashville (1975); an ensemble piece co-starring Ronee Blakely as a Loretta Lynn knock-off. Three years after Coal Miner’s Daughter, director Bruce Beresford would plumb the hardships of backwater hillbilly folk attempting to make good on the American dream in Tender Mercies (1983). But Apted’s movie has two great advantages; first, unvarnished verisimilitude through the complicity and kindness of Loretta Lynn, who not only gave her blessings but heavily campaigned on The Tonight Show for Sissy Spacek to play her, should a movie ever be made of her life story. Although complimentary, the invitation proved somewhat daunting to Spacek who was not entirely certain she could do the part justice.
Yet, if the moving picture represents America as both its mirror and conscience, then Spacek’s portrait of Loretta Lynn is undeniably one of its finest manifestations, resonating with heartbreaking authenticity. Spacek’s generosity, as that rarest of talents, managed perhaps the greatest coup in her assimilation of Loretta Lynn’s character traits; understanding that the essence of a person is not in the aping of the external. For her intuitive character study, Spacek absorbed not only Lynn’s inner mechanics, but she also inhaled something of the soot from the impoverished coalfields of Kentucky to reproduce an eidetic image, credibly substituted for the real thing. Viewing Coal Miner’s Daughter today, one is immediately dumbstruck by the uncanny tribute, extending well beyond the deft handling of Lynn’s Appalachian twang or even her unearthly ability to render Lynn’s songs with a rare gift defying mere impersonation. Listening to Spacek’s pre-recordings, Loretta Lynn was to joke that the public might think Spacek sang them better than she did. Perhaps not ‘better’, though arguably just as good, imbued with that perspicacious spark of irrefragable yearning that made Lynn such an iconic country/western legend in her own right and time.
In the annals of bio pics, Coal Miner’s Daughter is a rarity. First, its subject – Loretta Lynn – was not only alive but very much still a headliner on the country music circuit; hence, the film’s biographical aspects remain, arguably, a work in progress. What the film does spectacularly well is meld Hollywood’s yen for the traditional ‘rags to riches’ story, using the tried and true template of its Cinderella-esque transformation, while remaining ardent and steadfast in documenting Lynn’s own decidedly less glamorous and more rocky struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds. Coal Miner’s Daughter delivers its ‘feel good’. But it allays the anticipated ‘warm and fuzzy’ emotional response from the audience, taking dead aim at a more poignant intelligence that still manages to jerk the proverbial tear.
Acknowledging that Universal had very little faith in his movie, director Michael Apted brought a keen eye and fresh approach to telling his story, one uncluttered by a sycophantic appreciation for country music. Indeed, Apted knew nothing of Loretta Lynn beyond his own mother’s appreciation for the star. This might have spelled disaster, except that what Apted was ultimately after was the maxim of Lynn’s life - not a recreation in moving tableau derived from her press clippings. And in viewing Coal Miner’s Daughter today one can sense the purity of the work extending from this naiveté.
While Loretta Lynn embraced the project from the get-go, her husband, Oliver Vanetta ‘Doolittle’ ‘Doo’ ‘Mooney’ Lynn was less than enthusiastic, particularly after learning Tommy Lee Jones would be his alter ego. The public’s perception of Lynn’s late husband remains divided, but Thomas Rickman’s screenplay spars us the clichés with a varied portrait of this man who is, at once, forceful, self-reliant, affectionate, yet fallible. Undoubtedly, there will be those who continue to view ‘Mooney’ Lynn as the epitomized domineering and possessive showbiz hubby who married a child, then pretty much rode her back as his meal ticket. But this snap analysis is both unfair and untrue. Doolittle Lynn was a decorated soldier and a calculating individual with a strong work ethic by the time he met Loretta. His love for her, though at times awkward, was never anything less than genuine and, in the years that followed would help to shape and reshape her career in meaningful ways. The film is unapologetic in its depiction of the couple’s initial marital angst; Doolittle’s infrequent flirtations with cheap floozies, his sexual frustration with a resistant Loretta whom he takes advantage of against her will on their wedding night, his various manipulations made to coax her into a triumphant debut in front of a live audience, etc.
Doolittle’s initial apprehensions over the casting of Tommy Lee Jones were exacerbated by a flubbed first meeting. The original plan had been to chauffeur Jones and Apted by limousine to the studio where Lynn had recorded most of her hits; then drive on up to the ranch for a meet and greet with Doolittle. Jones, who had already dyed his hair reddish-blond for the part, had also brought along his faithful hound dog, Beau to break the ice. However, after leaving Apted and Jones at the studio, the overzealous limo driver went on to the ranch with only Beau in the backseat. Hence, when the limo arrived, Doolittle was introduced to a gregarious animal that proceeded to playfully jump all over him. However, the stalemate between Jones and Doolittle did not last for very long. In fact, Doolittle came to appreciate Jones’ humanity in the role, taking him under his wing and even showing him how to operate the tractor/plow for one of the pivotal scenes in the movie.
The drama deriving from Loretta Lynn’s real life is the stuff of bittersweet dreams and good solid bio-pics: Lynn (Sissy Spacek), who at age thirteen became a child bride in the forgotten impoverished mining town of Butcher Hollow and by age twenty had four children with returning soldier, Doolittle ‘Mooney’ Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones); who, after receiving a guitar instead of a wedding band for her tenth anniversary taught herself how to play; who etched her career from nothing more than sheer willpower and her husband’s underlying belief in her talents. A chance meeting with then reigning country diva, Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo) created brief friction in Lynn’s marriage before Cline’s untimely death in a plane crash. Afterward, Lynn, who had toured the one night honkytonks and county fairs with Cline, assumed the mantle as country music’s undisputed first lady, courting record producers and radio DJ’s with uncharacteristic nonchalance.
The genius of Thomas Rickman’s screenplay (written with Lynn’s guidance and based on her autobiography) is that it begins at the beginning with Loretta Webb’s (Sissy Spacek) obvious affections for ‘Mooney’ (Tommy Lee Jones) – so nicknamed because he runs a moonshine distillery with his buddy, Lee Dollarhide (William Sanderson). After Lee is shot, Doolittle briefly becomes a miner and pursues Loretta – taking her on wild rides in his flaming red jeep. Known for going it his own way, Doolittle’s unorthodoxy is in conflict with Loretta’s forthright father, Ted (Levon Helm) who is dead set against the match. Still, nothing can dissuade Loretta from marrying Doolittle.
But married life is hardly a bed of roses. Doolittle steals Loretta’s virginity on their wedding night. He hits his new wife out of frustration, flirts with other women and eventually sends Loretta packing, back to her family. Yet, nothing will sever the pair’s overriding affection for one another, particularly after Doolittle learns Loretta is pregnant with their first child. Doolittle takes a job in Northern Washington, working hard to save enough to send for Loretta. The heartfelt farewell between father and daughter at Van Lear station caps off the first act of the movie.
From here, the screenplay fast-tracks through the birth of four more children before Loretta was nineteen and the death of her beloved father; affectingly handled when Loretta thinks she sees Ted walking over the grassy horizon in his mining duds; suddenly realizing it is actually their neighbor come to call with the bad news of Ted’s passing. Loretta and Doolittle return to Butcher Hollow for the funeral, after which Loretta falls into a deep depression. She is stirred from her sorrow after Doolittle, recognizing her musical gifts, makes her a present of a Martin guitar on their tenth wedding anniversary. Although possessing no formal training, Loretta quickly develops an ear for chords and begins composing her own songs.
Inviting Loretta out on the pretext of a date, Doolittle instead gets his very reluctant wife to audition for a local honkytonk band on request night. She is an immediate sensation, her overnight success bolstering her confidence. Norm Burley, owner of the small independent record label – ‘Zero’ – is so impressed by Loretta’s singing he affords the couple expenses to cut Lynn’s first hit single, ‘Honkytonk Girl’. It’s a start; one stalemated through lack of publicity but rapaciously furthered by Doolittle’s enterprising and shameless self-promotion. Working by day, at night Doolittle assumes all of the responsibilities for Loretta’s ‘career’; mailing letters, homemade photos and demo records out to all the disc jockeys in the south. The pair even crashes a station, forcing the jockey to play their single and interview Loretta, whose genuineness in front of a microphone proves infectious.
But from here, Doolittle’s aggressive plans for Loretta’s future increasingly spiral out of control. Dazzling in her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, Loretta dedicates her follow-up performance at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, the Midnite Jamboree, to her favorite singing star – Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo), presently recovering in hospital from a near-fatal car wreck. Cline is enchanted with Lynn and soon the two become inseparable. Herein, a difficulty arises, in that Doolittle, having acknowledged his shortcomings as a promoter, cannot help but see how he is fast becoming just like Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick (Bob Hannah); an appendage expected to fall in line and follow along with the edicts of his wife. However, playing second fiddle does not appeal to Doolittle. Not long after, a disquieting rift begins to develop between Loretta and her husband.
It might have all ended in divorce, except that on March 5, 1963, Patsy Cline is killed in a plane crash. Devastated by the loss of her best friend and confidant, Loretta throws herself into an exhaustive touring schedule. While her public image rises like cream to the top of her profession, behind the scenes Loretta is rapidly depleting the life source fueling her talents. Coupled with the stresses of being separated from her large family and Doolittle, who looks after the children in Loretta’s absence on their sprawling ranch in Hurricane Mills, Loretta becomes addicted to painkillers to manage disturbing headaches. Begging Doolittle to accompany her on her next tour, the new round of engagements proves disastrous when Loretta, who is obviously suffering from the effects of ill health and drug abuse, succumbs to a nervous breakdown on stage, rescued and carried out of the auditorium by Doolittle as the packed house looks on.
After considerable rest and recuperation, Loretta marks a triumphant return to the Grand Ole Opry, now rechristened the First Lady of Country Music. Some months later, Doolittle takes his wife up the side of a mountain where he reveals plans to build a new dream house overlooking the Tennessee valley. Loretta quarrels with him briefly about the location of the bedrooms and Doolittle settles their argument by declaring he will build himself a treehouse a little further on ahead to escape further criticisms. The movie concludes with Loretta singing ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ to a sold out crowd at the Opry.
Coal Miner’s Daughter is richly expressive as both tribute and triumph of the human spirit, and, poignantly moving as a superior drama with sublime, light comedic touches grounded in verisimilitude and peppered with blind optimism. It remains the benchmark for most any other bio-pic to be judged. The fine line between capturing the essence of Loretta Lynn’s life and falling into that all too predictable mire of gross caricature or worse, stilted waxworks (where everyone looks the part, though arguably never comes across as made of flesh and blood) is never crossed. Both Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones know their way around an expertly written scene. Spacek has confessed that, at times, she was not entirely pleased with Jones’ natural disregard of her requests; as in the sequence where Doolittle recklessly drives his jeep through the muddy dirt roads of Butcher Hollow at breakneck speed to impress Loretta. At one point, Spacek was nearly thrown from the vehicle as a result of one of Jones’ hairpin turns. Promising not to do it again, Jones, in fact, upped his speed for take two, incurring Spacek’s wrath.
Michael Apted’s directorial vision for the movie was always to immortalize his subject. In the lady herself, Apted is working with extraordinary source material. But in Sissy Spacek he has a superior actress capable of delivering the goods as few expected. Everything about Spacek’s performance is inspired and untouchable. In her wake (and unstoppable Oscar-win) Tommy Lee Jones’ stellar turn as Doolittle Lynn went quietly unnoticed – an unforgiveable sin by the critics and Academy. Beverly D’Angelo’s Patsy Cline (also doing her own singing) is as celebratory. Some 34 years later, Coal Miner’s Daughter endures as a definitive look inside a truly iconic American legend, told plainly and with great compassion: an affecting, flavorful and distinguished masterpiece.
Well, it’s about time! Coal Miner’s Daughter arrives on Blu-ray via Universal Home Video and the results are impressive and disappointing. What?!? Ralf D. Bode’s cinematography has been faithfully reproduced in 1080p. Everything pops as it should. Coal Miner’s Daughter is not a movie overwhelming in impressive camera set-ups or lush sceneries. But this Blu-ray manages to rekindle that gritty fondness for the isolated enclave of Butcher Hollow and the rather seedy beginnings of the country music scene long before country music was itself considered trend-setting. Flesh tones are the biggest improvement herein. On Universal’s previously issued DVD they were wan and, occasionally piggy pink. On Blu-ray they adopt a much more natural hue. Exterior shots reveal a startling amount of clarity with all of the razor-sharp precision we’ve come to expect from the Blu-ray format. Contrast levels have also significantly improved. The image is slightly darker, but film grain has been faithfully reproduced – looking quite natural. What I cannot abide is Universal's lack of image clean-up. Age-related dirt, scratches, nicks and chips are 'glaringly' apparent throughout. Badly done!!!
Universal’s upgraded 5.1 DTS audio sounds quite startlingly fresh, particularly during the many musical inserts. It’s a solid and commendable upgrade. Extras are all direct imports from Universal’s 25th anniversary DVD edition and include a feature-length audio commentary from Spacek and Apted that is both thorough and interesting. We also get a fantastic interview piece featuring Apted and Loretta Lynn shot on location at Lynn’s museum; another with Apted and Tommy Lee Jones, and finally (and oddly) an AFI presentation featuring former President George Bush (shot while Bush was still governing). The oddity herein is that Universal has earmarked this inclusion as ‘a Tribute to Coal Miner’s Daughter’ when, in fact, Bush only casually mentions the movie by title – one of many – the tribute otherwise made to the AFI as an institution dedicated to the preservation of America’s movie heritage. Regardless, this upgrade comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)