Late in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the acclaimed biopic of country-music legend Loretta Lynn, there’s a telling remark about fame: “Gettin’ here is one thing, and bein’ here’s another.” That the line is spoken not by Lynn, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Sissy Spacek, but rather by her husband, Mooney, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, speaks volumes. In this particular story, the rise from dirt-poor roots to extraordinary success is hardest on Mooney, because once his wife’s career takes flight—thanks to years of hard work by both members of the couple—Mooney becomes superfluous in ways he never expected. This insightful take on the rags-to-riches formula that’s usually employed for biopics about music stars is just one of several commendable aspects of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Even though the film is quite ordinary in many ways, from the unavoidably predictable storyline to the way the title character is all but sanctified, delicate nuances of character and regional identity give Coal Miner’s Daughter an appealing sense of authenticity.
Opening in rural Kentucky circa the late 1940s, the picture introduces Loretta as the dutiful 15-year-old daughter of Ted Webb (played by real-life rock singer Levon Helm), a hardworking coal miner and father of eight kids. Life in the tiny mountain village of Butcher Hollow is hard, so when fast-talking World War II veteran Oliver “Mooney” Lynn woos Loretta with dancing and romance, she’s quickly swept off her feet. Marriage and pregnancy follow. Eventually, Mooney relocates his growing family to the city so he can find work, and he encourages Loretta to develop her singing talents by performing at honky-tonks. Though she misses her people in Butcher Hollow, Loretta realizes she’s got a gift for entertaining audiences, and things start falling into place. Mooney finances a recording session that produces a hit single, Loretta gets invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and reigning country-music queen Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo) becomes Loretta’s best friend, mentor, and touring partner. Despite exhaustion, marital tensions, and tragedies, Lynn soldiers on to become a chart-topping superstar.
As written by Tom Rickman (from Lynn’s best-selling autobiography) and directed by Michael Apted, a versatile Brit who has spent his career toggling between documentaries and fiction films, Coal Miner’s Daughter feels heartfelt from start to finish. The scenes in Kentucky are especially good, with beautifully constructed accents and costumes and sets used to convey you-are-there verisimilitude. Although material depicting life on the road is pedestrian, the combination of D’Angelo’s sass and Spacek’s fortitude amply demonstrates the indignities and sacrifices that women had to make for music careers in the ’50s. Jones also delivers one of his liveliest performances, mostly suppressing his natural surliness in favor of good-ol’-boy warmth. Underscoring all of this, of course, is the fact that Lynn’s early life really did unfold like a country song—she’s the real deal, and the same can be said of this film about her amazing journey.
Coal Miner’s Daughter: GROOVY