Coal Miner's Daughter Review

As the film begins, Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek) is a thirteen-year-old girl growning up in the small Appalachian mining town of Butcher Holler, Kentucky. She meets Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), a local boy just returned home from serving in World War II. They fall in love, and despite some initial opposition from her parents (played by Levon Helm and Phyllis Boyens) they marry. By the time Loretta is eighteen, they have four children. One day, Doolittle hears her singing to their children. Recognising her talent, he buys her a guitar as an anniversary present, which is the beginning of the singing and songwriting career of Loretta Lynn.

Coal Miner’s Daughter, based on Loretta Lynn’s autobiography, follows Loretta’s life up to her early thirties, covering her rise to stardom, her brief but close friendship with Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo), marital difficulties with Doolittle and a breakdown and recovery. Lynn personally chose Sissy Spacek to play her. The resemblance between the two women is startling. As they were both of the same (petite) build, when a costume wasn’t available for filming, Spacek simply borrowed something from Lynn’s wardrobe! Spacek adapted her native Texan accent to speak in Lynn’s back-country twang, and also did her own singing. This was so convincing that the two appeared together at the Grand Ole Opry, singing verses in turn, and no-one listening over the radio could tell which was which. Spacek has never been an actress of the false-nose-and-makeup school. She always looks much the same from film to film (variations in hairstyle apart) and usually sounds the same, but creates distinctive characters in film after film using her face, voice and body in subtler ways. She lost weight for the teenage scenes and wore a padded costume for the later ones, but much of her performance is conveyed through the minutiae of body language and vocal inflection. Especially following Carrie (which gained her her first Oscar nomination of six to date), she had a reputation for playing characters much younger than her actual age. Spacek was twenty-nine when Coal Miner’s Daughter was filmed, but the transition from early teenage to adulthood is absolutely seamless. It’s a performance that earned her her second Oscar nomination and to date her only win, both richly deserved. Following the success of this film and its soundtrack album, Spacek recorded a solo country album called Hangin’ Up My Heart. The film received five other nominations, including Best Picture in a very strong year (it was up against Raging Bull, Tess, The Elephant Man and the eventual winner, Ordinary People), but Best Actress was the only statuette it won. In box office terms, Coal Miner’s Daughter was a substantial hit, and remains one of the highest-grossing biopics of all time.

This makes it sound as if Coal Miner’s Daughter is a one-woman show, but it’s not. It’s a measure of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance that he isn’t acted off the screen, but he convincing portrays Doolittle from youthful exuberance to an older man given to drink and somewhat unmanned by his wife’s success. More importantly there’s a genuine chemistry between the two actors, so it’s no surprise that they’ve worked together again since. Tom Rickman’s script consciously structures the film as a love story between Loretta and Doolittle, and the ups and downs of their relationship drive the plot. If the screenplay and film has a flaw, and it’s not a major one, it’s that it compresses too much into its last half hour, which rather softens the impact of Loretta’s breakdown and recovery. (I’d be happy to watch for another fifteen or even thirty minutes.) Beverly D’Angelo is only onscreen for about twenty minutes. Her performance is inevitably overshadowed by Jessica Lange’s full-length portrayal of Cline in the later biopic Sweet Dreams, but it’s an entirely creditable piece of acting. She did her own singing as well. Levon Helm is a musician (drummer with The Band) here making his acting debut, but he’s effective as Loretta’s father as is Phyllis Boyens (in her only film) as her mother. It’s another tribute to Spacek’s performance that she convinces as their daughter despite being only seven years younger than him and two years younger than her.

As an English director, Michael Apted would seem an odd match for this very American subject matter. However, Lynn approved him as director precisely because he was an outsider, and less likely to make fun of people who are, in Loretta’s words, “ignorant but not stupid”. Also in his favour was an extensive and continuing background in documentary. His career has been very uneven, but generally constant has been considerable competence and ability with actors, both of which are well in evidence here. Visually, Coal Miner’s Daughter goes for a low-key, unsentimental realism, with muted colours, shown to good effect in Ralf Bode’s often underlit photography. In the commentary, Apted says that he thinks Coal Miner’s Daughter may be the best film he’s been involved with. He could well be right.

Universal’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As I say above, Ralf Bode’s photography is often quite dark, using natural and source light wherever possible. This shows up very well when projected onto a cinema screen, but it’s a little problematic for home viewing. There’s noticeable artefacting in some of the darkest scenes, such as one inside a coal mine during the opening credits. Also, once or twice, the colour shifts: an example of this is the opening shot of Butcher Holler. None of this is too distracting. The colour scheme is intentionally drab.

Coal Miner’s Daughter was released in mono in cinemas and remains monophonic on DVD. Clearly Apted has not felt the need to remix the sound. Most of Lynns’ recordings are in mono, and the great majority of the music on screen is solo voice with guitar, so I’d question that this is a film that needs a multi-channel remix. I’m of the belief that only those who made the film have the right to tinker with it, in any case. As such, it’s a typically professional job, balancing voices, music and sound effects. The subtitles might well be useful if the strong regional accents are hard on your ears, though. There are French and Spanish versions available on this disc as well, which dub the dialogue but leave the songs in English. Subtitles are placed centred, or left or right depending on where the speaker is in any given shot. There are eighteen chapter stops.

The main extra is an audio commentary with Apted and Spacek. It’s an intelligent discussion of the film, with some gaps in its two hours’ length. There’s obviously a considerable rapport between director and actress. At one point, Spacek tells how she was torn between accepting this role and one in a Nicolas Roeg film. (She doesn’t identify the film, but she was offered the Theresa Russell role in Bad Timing, which is very intriguing.) Her mother suggested she ask for a sign, so she did, and got one in the shape of a radio that played the song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” as it was switched on.

Apted also conducts the two interviews on the DVD, with Tommy Lee Jones (running 9:52) and Loretta Lynn (14:10). The latter takes place at the Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum in Nashville. Both are full-frame, with extracts from the film letterboxed. Both are worth a watch. Lynn is especially interesting in filling in what has happened since the film was made, including the deaths of Doolittle and one of their sons. At the age of 69, she’s still recording, with her new album Van Lear Rose (produced by and featuring Jack White of The White Stripes) released in the UK on the day this review was posted.

Finally, there’s “President George Bush Sr salutes the AFI and Coal Miner’s Daughter”. This is television material recorded in September 1989, full-frame and running 5:19. The title is a misnomer, as Bush only mentions Coal Miner’s Daughter in passing amongst other film titles. In fact, he spends more time praising anti-drug films like the now-forgotten I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. You have to wonder how Spacek and Jones feel about their film being taken up by a Republican President, considering that both are well-known Democrats. The only remaining extra is a page of recommendations telling you that if you enjoyed Coal Miner’s Daughter you should try The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and/or The Electric Horseman. These two items are simply a waste of disc space, particularly as the DVD omits such basic extras as the theatrical trailer and biographical material. Even a “jump to a song” feature would have been good. However, the commentary and the two interviews make this Region 1 edition the one of choice, especially as the dual-encoded Region 2/4 disc released in the UK and Australia has no extras at all. (It is available very cheaply, though.)

Coal Miner’s Daughter is a fine film full of virtues – strong acting, fluent storytelling and solid craftsmanship – that filmmakers ignore at their peril. It’s old-fashioned in the best sense, and as a vehicle for two great performances it’s strongly recommended, even if you have no interest in country music.

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