Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Coal Miner’s Daughter is an American success story in the best biopic tradition, whose virtues lie in John Corso’s superb production design and in several strong performances that gently mix humor and romance with the darker side of human relations. The title of the film pays lip service to the importance of her father, Ted Webb, in the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, but the promise of that kind of psychological insight is never borne out in the film itself. Levon Helm’s strong, sensitive portrayal of the astonishingly young yet prematurely old coal miner Webb keeps him in our memories (particularly his walk, straight and proud, yet stiffened by his trade and growing a little frail) for longer than screentime actually allows him; but the latter part of the film is devoid of any clear link to Ted. The real center of the film is Mooney Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets us right into the film by betting, in the opening sequence, that he can drive his jeep to the very top of a high, steep slag heap, and, of course, winning: the same way he wins the affections and the hand of young Loretta (Sissy Spacek), and the same way he drives her to the top of quite a different heap—only to find himself confronting the syndrome of the male housewife.

Success, though worked for, seems sudden and strangely easy for Loretta and Mooney, and Loretta’s nervous breakdown carries with it the strong sense of delinquent dues. On the night of her triumphant Grand Ole Opry debut she tells Mooney, “It’s never gonna be any better ‘n this!” and how right she is. That moment divides her life—and the film—sharply into two sections. As the realities of human relationships, parental responsibilities and domestic problems fade from her life, Loretta’s own sense of purpose and direction becomes less assured, which is understandable; so does the film’s sense of what it is doing, and that is not so understandable. Loretta of the breakdown doesn’t even seem to be the same person as the sprightly, lively, ignorant-not-dumb mining-town girl, and the only hint we get of the link between the two is a bottle of pills and Mooney’s platitudinous admonition to “slow down.” Similarly, we get no credible depiction of the process of recovery and resolution, and end up wondering how Loretta is able to move smoothly back into the fast-paced world of c&w concerts seemingly having conquered her fears and depressions. Mooney’s building a new house for her—a more modest home with a view that “looks like Kentucky” and is visually linked at the end of the film with the Webbs’ own Kentucky home—seems to have something to do with it; but the film is willing to accept the idea of emotional ordeal and personal transformation without ever confronting the fact of it. At the moment of her onstage breakdown, Loretta tries to talk with her audience: “You wouldn’t be here if y’ didn’t care about me.” The old lie about the relationship between stars and their fans is reflected here with a conviction and naïveté that makes us realize how deeply possessed Loretta is by the country music cult of kitsch personalism and ersatz emotion—and how thoroughly the film, too, comes to settle for that.

COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER
Direction: Michael Apted. Screenplay: Tom Rickman, after the autobiography of Loretta Lynn. Cinematography: Ralf D. Bode. Production design: John W. Corso. Editing: Arthur Schmidt. Production: Bernard Schwartz.
The players: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm, Phyllis Boyens, Beverly D’Angelo, William Sanderson, Ernest Tubb.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.