Posted in: Film Reviews, Musicals

Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

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

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Loretta (Sissy Spacek) leaves Butcher Holler, Kentucky—and her smotheringly supportive father of the title—when she marries Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones), a red-haired tree of a man, when she is nearly 14. When Daddy first lays eyes on Doo—Doo having taken bets from the locals on whether or not he can drive his little red jeep to the top of an impossibly steep clay mound—he mutters, “Went to a lot of trouble to get to the top of a pile of junk.” It testifies to the film’s low-key richness that the line doesn’t sound corny or heavyhanded; and it does sum up Doo’s hustling drive. When Loretta and Doo leave her home, they meander until Doo latches on to promoting his wife as a singer. Then the restless traveling of a sudden star proves to be too much for both of them and they find themselves sitting on top of another pile of junk. Doo, in a rare reflective moment, states a guiding life-tenet: sick of the road and of being referred to as “Loretta’s husband and—what a joke—manager,” he responds to an isn’t-this-what-you-wanted question with “Getting’ there is a helluva lot different than bein’ there.” This is even borne out in the experience of watching the movie: the exhilarating getting-there scenes, with your basic road hustle, bologna sandwiches that make you horny, a bedspread that isn’t a bedspread dammit it’s a backdrop, are followed with a perceptible letdown when bewigged, made-up stardom is achieved.

Yes, I know, we’ve seen this in lots of movies before, and Coal Miner’s Daughter does have a few problems tackling the formulaic similarities with, say, The Buddy Holly Story, and with the unavoidable echo from Nashville—but, since Barbara Jean’s breakdown in that film was (presumably) inspired by Lynn’s real-life crackup onstage, there’s no way around that one. In this last third of the movie it’s the quality of performance that really holds things together—Spacek and Beverly D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) are very fine, even doing their own singing, and Tommy Lee Jones (an actor I never wanted to see again after Eyes of Laura Mars) is remarkably energetic and funny. But Coal Miner’s Daughter ultimately passes the test because to the successfully realized—and somewhat flamboyant—vision of its director, Michael Apted. His Agatha seemed trivial and technique-y: lots of diffused light through cigarette smoke, that sort of would-be Sternbergian thing. Here, in the first shot, a great many elements are introduced that will continue to rebound through the movie: the green, smoky quality of the Tennessee trees; the slow solidity of Home; Loretta in motion (she rides into the frame on the back of a horse—which will be succeeded by such vehicles as trains, beat-up cars, and a giant touring bus: THE COAL MINER). Halfway through the movie Loretta and Doo return for her father’s funeral; they ride away from his grave on a bulldozer—couple and camera going in the opposite direction from the first shot, but surrounded and obscured by those same trees. This is the moment when Doo asks Loretta if she is up to continuing her until-now-nonexistent singing career. “I want it!” she yells over the loud engine. The moment is so right—involving the reversal of an earlier movement and the (seeming) shrugging-off of her father’s influence—it’s breathtaking.

Apted is particularly good at filling up the frame with rich, convincing atmosphere: the painfully smalltown train station clouded over with the smoke of an approaching train as Loretta’s father blurts out to her, “I’m never gonna see you again”; the unmistakable dawn through which Doo prances with Loretta’s breakfast, crossing the parking lot of the motel at which they spent their first horrendous night together; the gentle descent of the camera watching Loretta at her father’s grave, so that she seems to be swallowed up by the flowers around it. He’s also not afraid to punctuate a shot with some startlingly vivid images: Doo’s orange-and-white wedding shirt; Patsy’s garish costumes; the candy-colored, rain-spattered cars that Doo walks among at a lonely county fair.

Coal Miner’s Daughter ends with (this is under the end credits, now) a series of stills of the different homes that Loretta has had, from the humble home in Butcher Holler to the giant mansion in Tennessee. What this doesn’t include is the very last image of home the film has given us. After Loretta’s breakdown, and a considerable amount of marital strain, Doo takes Loretta away from the mansion to their “new home”: a bunch of wooden stakes pounded into the grass, string stretched between them to outline the foundation of a home, all looking down into a valley swimming in green trees. It’s an eerie moment, at first; then the couple inhabit the empty space and begin bickering about where the bedroom should be. The sudden, mutual realization that they can both have what they want, if they let themselves, is strangely beautiful here, with the sense of something new and eminently healthy growing literally from the ground up.

© 1981 Robert Horton

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.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.