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COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Levon Helm
Director:  Michael Apted
Audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date:  May 6, 2003

“Doo…I can’t sing in front of people!  I just can’t!”

“Yes you can, baby…”

Film ****

The sign of a good biopic is one that draws you in and enthralls you for the entire length of its running time, even if you had no prior interest in the subject matter.  That’s what makes Coal Miner’s Daughter possibly the all time best for me.  I can remember my parents taking me to see it when I was a grumbling ten year old, not caring a fig for country music or even knowing who Loretta Lynn was.  And I ended up loving the picture in spite of all that.

Loretta Lynn has lived an extraordinary life that’s more than a typical rags-to-riches story; it’s the very embodiment of the American dream.  From a coal miner’s daughter in a little backwoods town to the First Lady of Country music, her story was filled with triumphs and heartbreaks, of hard work and good luck…but most of all, love, and never losing the simple down home values she grew up with.

Sissy Spacek, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of the legendary country star, is pitch perfect as Loretta, even down to doing her own singing in the film.  But we don’t get to that until later.  Director Michael Apted, more concerned with character than celebrity, takes the time to let his audiences get to know Loretta and her background.

Growing up in the small coal mining town of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, Loretta’s life was poor in money but rich in family love.  Her father (the terrific Levon Helm) sweated away in the coal mines to provide for his wife and children, and like many coal miners, died far too young.  But without complaint, he made sure that while his family didn’t have much in the way of luxuries, they never went without what they needed.

Loretta’s life may have been like any number of lives that went before her in that small town, but that all changed when she met Dolittle Lynn (Jones, in an under-appreciated performance).  Doo was ex-Army, wild, and a bit more world-wise than Loretta, but that didn’t stop them from falling in love, getting married, having a big family, and moving across the country to Washington for a typical family existence.

But one thing about Loretta was very atypical…her terrific voice.  Recognizing her talent, Doo encourages her with a present of a guitar, and despite her initial fear and shyness, gets her up on stage to show the world what she can do.  Eventually, Loretta learns to like the stage, even writing and recording her first song, “Honky Tonk Girl”, which leads to her and Doo taking a marathon car trip throughout rural American to try and get her and her song some recognition.

Her road to stardom is paved with moments both happy and sad, including her short-lived friendship with Patsy Cline (the delightful D’Angelo, who ALSO does all her own singing), her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, her first big tour, her onstage nervous breakdown, and the strains on her marriage that sometimes came along.  But through it all, she remained a good old country girl at heart, and she rode both the crests and ebbs of her success with dignity and determination.

It would be easy to say that Ms. Spacek’s impeccable performance is the highlight of the film, but for me, the real magic was in the chemistry she shared with Mr. Jones.  Coal Miner’s Daughter is for me, first and foremost a love story.  The love shared by Loretta and Doo was the foundation for everything they accomplished in their lives, and through peaks and valleys, it was always there to fall back on.  Their moments on screen are among the most priceless to be found in the movies, from the banter they exchange while quibbling to Doo’s frequently tough persuasion to get Loretta to follow her dreams, to the finale where we can’t help but think happily ever after is in the cards.  And sure enough, the Lynns remained happily wed until Doo’s passing some years back.

The beauty of the film also rests in the details.  When you watch a shallow rise-to-fame picture like Glitter, you can’t help but sorely miss the little things that make the people on screen so real to you.  The actors, along with director Michael Apted, fill every frame of Coal Miner’s Daughter with loving attention, so that we earn every victory or suffer every defeat along with them.

Loretta Lynn is still a remarkable lady to this day, and millions of fans feel like they know her personally thanks to the effort behind making Coal Miner’s Daughter a true and fulfilling biopic.  Her music may live on, but the spirit of her life will definitely never be vanquished.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Levon Helm, who played Loretta’s father, was actually the drummer for The Band and can be seen in their concert movie The Last Waltz!

Video ***1/2

I was very happy with this anamorphic transfer from Universal.  With the 80s being a usually problematic era for DVD presentations, Coal Miner’s Daughter looks better than ever…far more so than it ever did on TV or my previous VHS copies.  The colors are bright and true, the print is clean and detailed, and very little in the way of grain or dinginess gets in the way of the viewing experience.  A couple of darker scenes exhibit some limitations, but these are few and far between.  The movie’s many fans will definitely appreciate this offering.

Audio **1/2

Opting for the original mono soundtrack, Coal Miner’s Daughter has a clean, earthy appeal to its audio.  I suppose hearing Ms. Lynn’s classics in 5.1 might be a bit of an anachronism.  Dialogue is well rendered and the music sounds just fine, even though dynamic range is fairly limited.  Not spectacular, but suitable, and probably a little bit better than average.

Features ***1/2

Here is a disc that opts for quality over quantity in this department.  You can count the features on one hand, even if you’re missing a thumb, but three of the four are superbly sublime.  The commentary track features Michael Apted with Sissy Spacek, and the two old friends share many a fond memory about making the movie, the other actors, Ms. Spacek learning to sing like Loretta, and of course, Loretta’s real life.  It’s only sparse here and there, but for the most part, a warm and welcome listen.

The real highlight, however, is Michael Apted’s recent interview with Loretta Lynn, which features the singer’s many thoughts on the film and the experience of bringing it to the screen, a look at her museum which contains many of the items from both her real life and the movie, and many other lovely tidbits, including working with Sissy and her appreciation of Tommy Lee Jones as Doo.  One keen memory is that she invited Sissy to sing with her on a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, and the two exchanged verses of the song while audiences apparently were none the wiser…great praise indeed from the First Lady of Country Music!

Rounding out is a shorter interview Apted conducted with Tommy Lee Jones and former President Bush saluting the American Film Institute, which is a tad drab and only included because Coal Miner’s Daughter is one of a small handful of films he mentions in his speech.  Still, the content of the features package here is better than some DVDs that have twice as many extras.

Summary:

She’s proud to be a Coal Miner’s Daughter, and I’m proud to finally own one of my favorite childhood films on an excellent DVD offering from Universal.  Loretta’s life and music lives on with this disc.