Sunday, 29 April 2012

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)

Dir. Michael Apted
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverley D’Angelo, Levon Helm

“I was born a coal miner’s daughter  
 In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler; 
 We were poor, but we had love, 
 That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of; 
 He shovelled coal to make a poor man’s dollar…”
 And there, in the lyrics of a song by Loretta Lynn, is the plot of Coal Miner’s Daughter.

The film tells the story of Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), one of country music’s biggest stars. It takes the viewer from her childhood in a shack in the Kentucky coal-mining hamlet of Butcher Hollow, through to her headlining stadium tours as “the first lady of country”. There are plenty of thrills and spills along the way: married at aged 13, a mother of four by age 20, a grand-mother by 29. Her husband Doolittle (a shockingly young Tommy Lee Jones) spots her talent for singing and encourages her to learn the guitar, to perform in honky-tonks, and to write her own material. She gets her big break through sheer dogged persistence, cutting a record and then driving from radio station to radio station to get it on the air. She appears at Nashville’s famous Grand Ol’ Opry and makes friends with Patsy Cline (Beverley D’Angelo), the queen of country. She tours with Cline, and when Cline dies in a plane crash Lynn continues solo. Through all the twists and turns her volatile relationship with Doolittle provides a counterpoint.

Quite remarkably, Spacek and Jones seem to age with their characters. Spacek is unsettlingly believable as a pubescent, and then matures into a hot-tempered young woman and then a more matronly country star. She is aware of her failings all the way through. She is not an educated girl and she knows it. But she’s smart - “I may be ign’ant, but I’m not stooped” she says. Yet others may look down on her. One radio station manager tells her to “come off that dumb hillbilly act”; Doo replies “If you knew Loretta, you’d know that ain’t no act.” At first she has to be talked into each new step. The game changer is when she and Doo return to Butcher Hollow for her father’s funeral. It is then that she is able to tell Doo that she wants to be a singer, she wants it so bad. Jones too fills out from his fluorescent-haired youth into a stronger man. He has an enviable drive and determination (“that son of a gun Doolittle don’t know the meanin’ of the word ‘quit’!”) This is first seen when he bets that he can drive his jeep up a steep spoil heap. He sets his sights on Loretta, and he wins her. He then determines to make her a star, which he does. But what then? He gets her to the pinnacle, so what is left for him to drive towards. He feels like a spare part. Eventually he vacates himself from the tour and gets a job as a car mechanic, indulging in his love of vehicles. But he is always there when Loretta needs him. Even at the end of the film their relationship is still strong. He decides to surprise her by building her a new house, with a view over the trees that reminds them of Kentucky. They get to arguing about where the bedroom will be. He growls “like a big ol’ bear” and threatens to divorce her and move out to a treehouse. They laugh. He may have hit her, he may have (almost) cheated on her, but dat-gone it, they still love each other. He had always been her drive, her inspiration and her support.

It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well:
Doo (Jones) and Loretta (Spacek) go to show you never can tell

But there was one more contributing factor to her success. She wasn’t some groomed and manufactured pop commodity. She was real. She came from the poorest of backgrounds and wound up a star, giving hope to thousands. In the title song she says “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter / I remember well the well where I drew water…” Because she draws upon her own real-life experiences – from her impoverished but loving upbringing to her start singing in honky-tonks, up to her struggles to keep her man – there is a truth in her lyrics that appeals to people. They have lived through the same experiences and can relate to her lyrics. There is a personal connection between audience and star. And that is what gives her her success. Butcher Hollow is indeed the well where she drew water…

I think the biggest question to ask of any biographical film is: does it stand up on its own as a film even when you know nothing about the character being portrayed? This is a very good question to ask of Coal Miner’s Daughter. While I had heard of Loretta Lynn I couldn’t name any of her hits. I did know peripherally of Patsy Cline, but country music really isn’t my bag. And, yes: the plot does hold up. There was nothing that required specialist knowledge, there were no in-jokes or references that I could spot, and the story was pretty much universal: poor girl struggles up from nothing to become a star. And this wasn’t just history. At the time the film came out Loretta Lynn was only 45. She sat in the audience at the Academy Awards to see Spacek win the Best Actress Oscar for playing her (bizarrely, at the same time the boxer Jake LaMotta was also sat in the audience to see Rober DeNiro’s portrayal of him win the Best Actor Oscar too).

In the film when Loretta Lynn has to sing, that’s Sissy Spacek singing, live. When Patsy Cline has to sing, that’s Beverley D’Angelo singing. Strangely there is one genuine musician in the cast – Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, who plays the coal miner of the title, Loretta’s father Ted Webb. Helm himself died less than a fortnight ago at the time of writing.

What have I learnt about Kentucky?
I said earlier that in my head Kentucky and Tennessee tend to become a little conflated. Coal Miner’s Daughter states in its credits that it is filmed in both states, and there is a criss-crossing between the two. Kentucky has country music, but the pinnacle of country is the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The two states have (or had) a chain of small local radio stations devoted to country music scattered all over them. To my ears there is a subtle distinction between the polished up glitzy stadium country played in Nashville and the older folk music of the hills. Compare Lynn’s box-ticking You’re Lookin’ At Country with a song she sings much earlier in the film, a ballad called The Titanic… or indeed the harmonies of the funeral crowd singing Amazing Grace.

In terms of visuals, the opening scenes of Kentucky in the ‘40s show it as a tough land. “If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices: coal mine, moonshine, or move it on down the line…” Men blackened with coal dust climbing from the mines, long walks up hillsides studded with bare trees, snowflakes drifting to the ground. This is coal country. People are poor but family-oriented. And marriage at 13, while regrettable, is not illegal (as I say, this is the ‘40s we are talking about). Maybe I was wrong with my earlier assumption that Kentucky is wealthy.

Can we go there?
The movie was shot on location wholly in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Even the bits set in Washington state.

Chief among locations has, of course, to be Butcher Hollow. This is part of the larger settlement of Van Lear in Johnson County, eastern Kentucky. (It’s obviously a musical part of the world; her younger sister is better known as the singer Crystal Gayle and yet another country musician, Dwight Yoakam – who appeared as the abusive Doyle in Sling Blade – was born in nearby Pikeville). The Consolidated Coal Company founded Van Lear in the early 1900s, and the mines were in operation up until the 1940s. The town still hosts a Coal Miners’ Museum and a period general store, now known as Webb’s Store. It is owned by Herman Webb, Loretta’s brother, who runs tours up to their childhood home in Butcher Hollow.

And the real-life locations were used in the film. That deep valley looking down onto the train tracks? That is Van Lear. Likewise the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, was used for filming, as was the Loretta Lynn ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Tours of the ranch take place, where visitors can see ‘Loretta’s Plantation Home, Butcher Holler Home Place & Simulated Coal Mine’. That Butcher Holler Home Place is the cabin constructed for the film to stand in for her actual childhood home. There is also an 18,000 sq ft Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. Other Tennessee locations include Franklin: Loretta and Doo spent their wedding night at a long-out-of-action motor court nearby, and the WSM radio tower and WAGG radio station were visited on the Lynn’s road trip.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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