Sweet Dreams Review
Jessica Lange’s acting has an unusual charge to it, as if her emotions were wired directly into the characters she is playing. It’s not a skill which she has had the opportunity to exercise for a while – how could any actress find anything interesting to do with a role like the faithful wife in Big Fish - but in her best films, she’s like a lightning conductor of the heart. You can see this is roles as diverse as the compromised soap actress in Tootsie, the tragically manipulated Frances Farmer and the lawyer defending her father against a Nazi war crimes charge in Music Box. It’s not difficult to shine in a witty comedy like the first on that list but harder to turn mediocre films like the latter two into personal triumphs. Karel Reisz’s 1985 biopic of Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams, is far from mediocre but it wouldn’t be anything like as effective as it is without the presence of Lange in the central role.
As with most biopics – or at least the ones not involving Oliver Stone – the structure of the film is somewhat schematic. Patsy Cline’s life story is, as it happens, not especially interesting or unusual, at least not in the context of the business which produced Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Sabrina. Much of her mythic stature comes from her death in a plane crash at the age of 30. Not all of it though. Few country singers have had a voice quite as paradoxical as Cline’s – raucous but sweet, passionate yet gently ironic. She’s also pretty remarkable as the key female singer who opened up the Country music industry to women and thus laying the trail for the equally significant Loretta Lynn, who released her first album in 1963, the year that Cline died. It’s therefore rather suitable that Sweet Dreams is more than just a little reminiscent of Michael Apted’s impressive biopic of Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter. Cline featured in that film too, played as a slightly intimidating force of nature by Beverly D’Angelo. What’s interesting though is that Cline’s story is just as much about failure as success. During the eight years covered by the film, she spent five years in relative obscurity with only one hit song – “Walking After Midnight” – to her credit. This lack of success was partly due to a restrictive deal which tied her exclusively to one publishing company. Only in 1960 did Cline come into her own with the gorgeous ballad “I Fall To Pieces”, beginning a period of considerable popularity, although she never had any lasting crossover to the mainstream pop audience.
One of the strengths of Reisz’s film is that it neither wallows in the failure nor tries to pretend that the path to success was easy. There’s an ambivalence to the film which is satisfying and a little surprising. Cline is presented as a live-wire who is driven as much by impulse as reason and whose slightly self-destructive tendencies came out in her relationship with Charlie Dick (Harris), her abusive and hopelessly confused husband. The film doesn’t slobber all over her and we don’t feel manipulated into liking her. We respond to the tension in her manner and the energy which seems to be exploding out of the Sunday dresses into which she is packed. If we like her, it’s because she’s so patently alive and real, quite an achievement in a genre where hagiography long ago became both form and content. Lange is so present here and when she confesses that “Everything has fallen down around me”, we believe it and it affects us. Lange refuses to make Patsy Cline easily likeable and the result is that we admire her without necessarily being pleased about it. This ambivalent attitude extends to the treatment of Charlie. The character is a nightmare, a collection of self-pitying drunk wife-beater clichés which could easily have tipped the film over into the realms of simplistic dreck. But Ed Harris – on his day, as good a film actor as Jessica Lange – redeems the clichés. Harris has been great in so many films that he’s in danger of being taken for granted. I watched Pollock the other day and marvelled at his ability to be hateful without making us hate him. Charlie doesn’t so much walk as combine a prowl with a strut and his swaggering lack of self-examination is irresistibly funny at first and then a little unnerving. But Ed Harris doesn’t let us relax into thinking that we know Charlie and can predict him. Moments which threaten to be fights turn into sensual love scenes and just when you think he’s about to hit Patsy, he breaks up laughing instead. Lange and Harris play together with an affectingly natural ease and they seem to be enjoying each other’s company – you can easily believe that these two people would be a couple, even when one or the other is behaving badly, or maybe especially when. Charlie and Patsy fire each other up and its the heat which they enjoy.
The film, as I suggested earlier, tends towards being a little schematic and the expected scenes do turn up on schedule. But Robert Getchell, the screenwriter, can do something with this kind of schema, as he demonstrated in his script for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He invigorates derivative scenes with pungent and funny dialogue, giving us something to smile about while we’re preparing to groan at how familiar the story is. Patsy’s car accident in 1961, her first recording session with Owen Bradley – the producer whose arrangements helped to make her a star - and her disillusionment with Charlie’s drunken womanising are all potential trouble spots which speed past us because Getchell keeps the dialogue bouncing along. He has a particular affinity for the kind of foul-mouthed invective that Charlie regards as normal speech – he’s the kind of guy who can’t just say “kiss my butt” but has to say “kiss my furry butt” and of course it’s the adjective which makes it funny. There’s a moment when Patsy breaks up at his description of sex as ‘bumping uglies’ and it’s lovely because it seems so real, partly due to the wit which Harris brings to his delivery.
More surprising is the energy which the director brings to this material. Karel Reisz’s previous film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, had immaculate performances, a poised sense of place and a simmering dramatic tension. But it was completely devoid of senseless passion, the thing which was supposed to be the motor of the plot. Energetic is the last word you’d use to describe it and the same goes for some of his previous films like The Gambler and Isadora, which for all their merits seemed at least twice as long as they were. But I had forgotten when watching this movie that in 1978 Reisz made Who’ll Stop The Rain, one of the best films ever made about post-Vietnam disillusionment and a collection of some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen on screen. That film exploded with passion and anger and it’s this same intensity which makes Sweet Dreams so effective. Naturally, some of this comes from Lange’s extraordinary performance – which takes the almost deranged emotion in the songs and translates it into the woman – but it also comes from scenes which crackle with vitality and pace. Reisz knows how to turn the screws in an extended scene between Patsy and Charlie and he doesn’t ruin them through busy cutting. The longer takes here aren’t simply show-off technique, they allow the performers to build a rhythm and find the emotional connections which turn good dialogue into believable drama. The film isn’t particularly interesting visually and, despite good costumes and art direction, it’s not entirely redolent of its period either. But it’s often deeply affecting and it achieves the difficult feat of explaining, to some extent, the personal experience and, sometimes, torment which informs the greatest singing voices. Sidney J.Furie tried to do this in Lady Sings The Blues but got lost in exploitation. Karel Reisz’s achievement in Sweet Dreams is to make us listen to those great, tragic songs – “Crazy”, “She’s Not You”, “I Fall To Pieces” and of course the unbeatable title track – with a new respect for the woman who brought them to life.
Sweet Dreams is one of the more underrated films of the 1980s and it certainly deserves a wider audience. Sadly, this release, while competent, isn’t likely to bring it many new fans. The film seems to be well known to Country music fans but it’s good enough to stand on its own with a less partial audience.
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a pretty good transfer. The colours are strong enough to knock your eyes out and are the best aspect of the picture, There is some grain but this is suitably filmic and natural without being distracting. Artefacting is occasionally a problem, particularly in the scenes where Reisz and his DP have been a bit over-enthusiastic with the chiaroscuro. Overall however, this is quite a pleasing visual experience.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and faithful to the original recording. It sounds very nice indeed and the restorations of the original Patsy Cline songs – which Lange very effectively mimes to – are sometimes stunning. The rendition of “Sweet Dreams” towards the end is a particular highlight with a beautiful warmth and richness.
There are no extras at all. The film is divided into 20 chapters. Shamefully, no subtitles are provided – presumably a rather mean-minded cost cutting decision.
Sweet Dreams is a very satisfying and effective film which may not be groundbreaking but is always true, touching and funny. This DVD looks and sounds fine but lacks the kind of extra features which might have attracted new viewers.