With the recent explosion and deaths of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine just a few weeks ago, we’ve been reminded once again of the dangers and sacrificial hard lives of coal miners and their families. We heat our homes, light our streets and offices, and power our computers at the physical expense of those hard-working laborers. That’s the sturdy stock that Loretta Lynn comes from and the difficult beginnings that shaped her work ethic, family and music for the rest of her life.
Coal Miner’s Daughter, directed by British director, Michael Apted (Amazing Grace, Nell) and released in 1980, received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta in this film based on her autobiography of the same title.
Loretta hand-picked Spacek to play her based on a photo in a stack of 8×10 glossies and without having seen her films, according to Spacek in an interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio from 2002. Spacek didn’t really want to do the film, partly because Loretta was stating in various television appearances that Sissy Spacek would be playing her and Spacek thought, “I don’t even know you!”
Spacek tells of the time she and her husband drove home to Texas and planned to stop to see Loretta perform on the way in Louisiana somewhere. They missed the performance but arrived in time to watch the theater doors open and Loretta burst out in a red chiffon dress with her band behind her. She was so upset, Spacek says, and going on about, “Bam, bam, bam…Bam, Bam…I couldn’t hear nothin’ but them dad gum drums beatin’ in my ear!” Spacek says, “I just was struck dumb! I thought, I have to play this woman!”
While working on the film, Loretta encouraged Spacek to sing her songs and helped her. They sang and played together, wrote songs together. Spacek tells of them staying in the Spence Manor in Nashville and pinning sheet music to the lampshades, turning on the lamps and then walking from lamp to lamp to follow the music as they practiced. They even stepped into the shower because the acoustics were so great to practice.
All of her time and practice with Loretta, both in person and with her voice on tape paid off in spades. Loretta says they’re almost like twin sisters. Spacek was the definitive actress to play the part, from her ability to portray Loretta first married at the young age of 15 all the way through her teens, young adult and middle-aged years, to her ability to adopt her spoken accent and do her own vocals so naturally on Loretta’s classic songs.
The film begins with young Loretta riding a mule through the woods of Kentucky, hauling one of her brothers on a wooden sled behind her on their way to town to meet their daddy who is just getting off his shift at the coal mine. While in town, they come across a handsome young soldier just arrived back home, showing off his new red jeep. He’s just sure his jeep can make it up a long, steep bank of dirt and people are betting on whether he’ll make it or not. Loretta can’t take her eyes off of him and he obviously has eyes for her.
Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, also known as Doo, makes it to the top of the hill to Loretta’s delight and the shaking of her daddy’s head.
It’s a great beginning to a great and amazing story of how these two literally climb what looks like an impossible hill out of the poverty of a mining town, moving to the west coast together and having four children by the time Loretta is 19, and then moving back after her father dies and starting her career from scratch.
Tommie Lee Jones received his first Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Mooney, the forward, dare-devil, young soldier with dreams of getting out of what he saw as the trap of a mining town in order to do something bigger and better. Mooney’s nickname came from his days selling moonshine, but Loretta’s nickname of Doo fit him better. He was quite a doer and sometimes stepped in doo, both in his relationships and the things he tried along the way.
He pursued Loretta from the time that he saw her that day in town, much to her parents’ concern. He was older and she was only 14 or 15 at the time. But Loretta fell for him hard. The scene where Doo asks her parents if he can marry her is priceless. Daddy says for him to ask Mommy. Mommy says for him to ask Daddy. Back and forth it goes until Doo finally and nervously walks into their bedroom to profess his love for her and how he’ll take good care of her, never hit her and never take her away from them. Reluctantly, they consent.
Loretta and Doo are married at the courthouse the next day, and the wedding night in a little hotel is anything but romantic. It honestly illustrates how much the wedding was about the wedding night and future nights for Doo, and how Loretta had no idea what all that was about. Doo forces himself on her and their marriage gets off to a rocky start. Apparently, the film takes a few liberties with the actual events, but the shame she felt at their first time was real.
Loretta gets pregnant right away and Doo turns out to be a drinker and not too patient as Loretta is trying to figure out his physical expectations. He lashes out. She ends up going home. When the baby comes, Doo comes around and they manage to work things out somewhat.
What is surprising about these early stories is that none of it revolves around music at all. There’s a bit of family singing prior to Doo’s arrival at the house the night he proposes, but beyond that, it doesn’t play a significant part. The main focus of the film in this early segment is Loretta’s close relationship with her parents and how their love and care was her foundation and the well from which she drew strength to face the hardships of life.
She could have titled her autobiography many things, but the fact that she was the daughter of a deeply loving, self-sacrificing coal miner was pivotal. They may not have had much, but they had each other, and that was what mattered most in the long run.
Music doesn’t enter the picture much until the young couple moved to the West Coast and have several children together and Loretta sings them to sleep and hums around the house.
It was Doo who thought Loretta should sing. He bought her a guitar for one of their anniversaries because he liked her singing and encouraged her to sing at a honky-tonk, (‘There He Goes’ ), though she was terribly nervous and didn’t want to. It was Doo who suggested they move back south after Loretta’s father died to be close to family and to the music industry.
He encouraged her to record a song and took the promo shot in front of a bed sheet and sent the copies to radio himself. He and Loretta drove from radio station to radio station personally promoting the record. They discover at one station that the song, ‘I’m A Honky Tonk Girl’ has actually made it to #14 on the charts. They hadn’t even realized it was on the charts at all.
The film rolls through her early career by highlighting some significant milestones such as her recording studio sessions, her debut performance on the Grand Ole Opry, and her performance of one of Patsy Cline’s songs on a radio show that Patsy happened to hear while recovering from a car accident. Patsy (Beverly d’Angelo) invites Loretta to her hospital room and their friendship begins.
Loretta tours with Patsy and learns the ropes both on and off stage. Suddenly, Doo isn’t quite the only significant force in Loretta’s life and the film explores this tension a bit, along with the deep sadness both of them experience when they learn Patsy has been killed so unexpectedly in the crash. Beverly d’Angelo does her own vocals as Patsy which aren’t quite as good as Spacek’s vocals as Loretta in my opinion, but good nonetheless.
The film also covers Loretta’s breakdown at one point due to stress and her come back afterwards. Apparently, the breakdown didn’t happen exactly as portrayed in the film, but it makes the point. Doo is always a character throughout their life together, but he always stands by her and she by him in the end. As bumpy as the ride was, they both made it to the top of that career climb together, just like that old jeep long ago.
The movie ends with a wonderful scene about them arguing over where to put a bedroom on a house that Doo has dreamed up back in the hills on a beautiful sight with a wonderful view. At one point, frustrated, Doo says they ought to just call the lawyers and get a divorce because he’s tired of arguing. Loretta says she doesn’t want a divorce; she just doesn’t want the bedroom on the front of the house. The scene shifts to a concert stage as Loretta is being announced as the coal miner’s daughter to sing the title song while the credits roll.
The concert and performance footage by Spacek is amazing throughout. She becomes Loretta. Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl all make cameo appearances as themselves. Levon Helm (lead drummer for The Band) plays Loretta’s father in his film debut and also performs on the soundtrack.
A 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition was released on DVD in 2005 and is still available, along with the soundtrack through various regular outlets.