Saturday, September 6, 2014

Coal Miner's Daughter

Tonight's Essential on TCM is the biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, at 8:00 PM.

Nowadays, most people would recognize Coal Miner's Daughter as the life story of country singer Loretta Lynn, although when the book on which the movie was based was published back in the late 1970s, the story behind Lynn's success wasn't so well known, and that's what the book and movie tells, the movie doing so beautifully. (I haven't read the book.)

Sissy Spacek plays Loretta, who at the start of the movie is about 14 years old, living with her large family including her, her parents (Levon Helm of The Band and Phyllis Boyens), and a whole bunch of siblings. Dad is a coal miner, and when she takes the horsecart into town to meet Dad, we first meet Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones). He's a brash young veteran just back from World War II with a jeep and a pile of money to burn. He meets Loretta and begins to fall for her, although the feeling isn't quite mutual as she's never been in love before. (The movie as far as I remember doesn't state their age difference but implies it's fairly large; in real life they were about six years apart. The tag line says she got married at 13 but the real story has her being married at 15.) Eventually Doolittle asks for Loretta's hand in marriage, and Dad reluctantly consents.

Married life isn't easy. Much like Dana Andrews' Fred Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives, the money Doolittle came home from the war with hadn't lasted very long and now he's not much better off financially than the coal miners. So Doolittle takes Loretta out west with him to work the logging camps in Washington, which is where she has the first four of their children (in real life, the fourth child was born a week before Loretta's 20th birthday; do the math). Life is difficult, in part becase Loretta is unhappy alone and in a strange place, what with Doolittle having reneged on his promise to her Dad not to take her too far away.

Things begin to change when Doolittle hears Loretta singing to the children and realizes that she's got a pretty voice. He encourages her to sing in public, and then eventually cut a record, which the two take to various country music stations all over America on their way to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, which is The Big Thing in country music. Obviously, we know from the fact that this is based on an autobiography that Loretta is eventually going to make it big, but this is one of those movies where the value is in seeing how the characters get to the eventual ending.

And what a good movie it is. The story is probably embellished in parts, but reading the Wikipedia article, which is presumably reasonably accurate, reveals that the true story is just as interesting. Sissy Spacek is outstanding as Loretta, playing her through 30 years of her life. The supporting cast is more than up to the task, from Jones, to the famous names playing themselves (Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl), to the one playing another famous name, Beverly D'Angelo as Patsy Cline who, for fairly obvious reasons couldn't play herself. I'm not much of a fan of country music, but if you're the same way, that shouldn't have any bearing on whether or not you'll like the movie, which is uniformly excellent.

Coal Miner's Daughter is available on DVD.

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