My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Coal Miner’s Daughter: Motion Picture and Soundtrack Review

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.

Grade: A+

15 responses to “Coal Miner’s Daughter: Motion Picture and Soundtrack Review

  1. J.R. Journey April 22, 2010 at 9:53 am

    This was, and still is, my favorite movie of all time. I’ve watched it more times than I could even begin to count. It was my introduction to classic country music and the workings of the music business, as I assume it was for lots of people from my generation. I’ve gotten to the point that I can just quote the lines but I still watch it every chance I get.

  2. Ken Johnson April 22, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Nicely written summary of the best country bio pic ever made. I saw it at the theatre when it was first released and within the first few minutes I forgot that it was Sissy Spacek onscreen and believed that it truly WAS Loretta Lynn. A sensational performance that completely captured Loretta’s essence and charm.

    It’s unfortunate that “Walk The Line” did not do justice to Johnny Cash. I never believed that Joaquin Phoenix WAS Johnny Cash, though Reese Witherspoon made a very credible June Carter. Phoenix just seemed weird and angry without portraying any of Cash’s amazing magnetism, likeability or charisma. The concert scenes were especially brutal. Phoenix apparently never took the time to view Cash’s TV show or concert appearances as he completely failed to emulate Cash’s onstage grace and attitude.

    Wish that someday an accurate and believable Hank Williams movie would be made. THAT could be the ultimate country biopic.

  3. Razor X April 22, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I think I read somewhere that Coal Miner’s Daughter was the first autobiographical flim about an entertainer to be made while the subject was still alive.

    • Meg April 22, 2010 at 11:07 pm

      If not the first, it sure has to be one of the few. Can you think of any others before or since?

      • Razor X April 23, 2010 at 7:56 am

        No, I can’t. I’m sure there must be some, but I can’t come up with them off the top of my head, other than a made-for-TV movie starring Annette O’Toole based on Tammy Wynette’s autobiography.

      • Ken Johnson April 23, 2010 at 10:53 am

        One of the first country biopics was 1964’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” which told ex-wife Audrey Williams’ fantasy version of the life of Hank Williams. A young George Hamilton (yes the permanently tanned George Hamilton) played the starring role. Hamilton lip-synched new recordings of Hank Williams songs performed by a then 14-year-old Hank Williams, Jr. The music was great but the screenplay had very little basis in reality.

        The success of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 1980 most likely inspired “Sweet Dreams.” In 1985 Jessica Lange starred as Patsy Cline in this production which took quite a few liberties with the true facts of Patsy’s life. It did not remain as close to the truth as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” did though Lange won rave reviews for her performance.

        Several made-for-tv country biopics also come to mind.

        As mentioned, Annette O’Toole attempted to star as Tammy Wynette in 1981’s “Stand By Your Man.” Completely missed the mark and quite painful to watch.

        Just four years after her untimely death, Dottie West’s story was brought to life by Michele Lee. She starred in 1995’s “Big Dreams And Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story.” The cast included quite a few country stars that played themselves including Loretta Lynn. A singer in real life, Michele surprisingly turned out to be a good choice for that role.

        That same year relative unknowns played The Judds in “Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build A Bridge.” The screenplay was based on a book co-written by Naomi so the story may not be completely factual.

        Maureen “Marcia Brady” McCormick portrayed Barbara Mandrell in 1997’s “Get To The Heart – The Barbara Mandrell Story.” Perhaps they may not have chosen Maureen for the role of squeaky-clean Babs had they known about her sex and drug addicted past at that time.

        The most mis-cast role next to Joachin Phoenix as Johnny Cash was Richard “John Boy Walton” Thomas who played Hank in 1983’s “Living Proof – The Hank Williams, Jr. Story,” The soft-spoken, diminutive Thomas appeared ridiculous attempting to portray the boisterous, much taller, barrel-chested Bocephus. It’s hard not to laugh out loud at this one.

        A side note – Naomi Judd had a bit part in this last flick. She was the red-headed groupie who “made a man” of young Bocephus backstage after a concert.

        If you consider Elvis or John Denver country performers, both have TV movies that told their stories too.

        Kurt Russell played the King in the 1979 Dick Clark produced “Elvis.” Jonathan Rhys-Myers took on the role in 2005 for the “Elvis” mini-series. An excellent 1990 TV series “Elvis” starred Michael St. Gerard. Set in 1954 it focused on Elvis’ early career in Memphis. Produced by Priscilla Presley it was cancelled after just 13 episodes.

        Just three years after death, John Denver was dreadfully portrayed in 2000 by Chad Lowe in “Take Me Home: The John Denver Story.” John deserved better.

      • Mike February 13, 2011 at 8:44 pm

        “The Jolson Story” from the forties was made while Al was still going.

  4. J.R. Journey April 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

    I hadn’t even heard of a couple of those flicks, Ken. Thanks for pointing them out to me. I’ll have to queue them up on netflix soon.

    I do remember about 10 years ago or so that CMT was running several of these biopics – particularly Sweet Dreams, Living Proof, and Love Can Build a Bridge. It’s been a while since I’ve seen most of them.

    • Meg April 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm

      Thanks for that list Ken. I too will need to get to watching! It does look as though most of them were done after the artist had passed away which makes Coal Miner’s Daughter fairly unique.

  5. Razor X April 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    In 1985 Jessica Lange starred as Patsy Cline in this production which took quite a few liberties with the true facts of Patsy’s life. It did not remain as close to the truth as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” did though Lange won rave reviews for her performance.

    Loretta was very involved with the production of Coal Miner’s Daughter and likely forced them to stay more or less close to the truth. She even insisted that they go to Butcher Holler to film the early scenes. They didn’t want to do it; it was a big hassle dragging all the film equipment out into the middle of nowhere but in the end they were glad that they did.

    There are some deviations from fact in the film, though. Loretta never toured with Patsy Cline, and Patsy had her own band or tour bus. The scene where Loretta met Patsy in Patsy’s hospital room, in which Patsy’s husband Charlie sneaked her in a beer, never happened, either, according to Loretta. Patsy died in 1963. Loretta’s twins, one of which was named after Patsy, were born in 1966, but in the film, Loretta tells Patsy that she is pregnant, during her last visit wiht her. Still, at the end of the day, this is entertainment and not a documentary and they got most of the important details right.

    • Meg April 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm

      You make a good point, Razor, that it isn’t a documentary. I always think that’s a tension in bio pics – go for the facts or go for the overall spirit of the person’s life.

      I must admit I haven’t read the biography yet – did that on purpose in order to treat the film on its own merits. It really focuses on the relationship between Doo and Loretta and the role that relationship and her beginnings played in her life rather than the specifics of her career in detail.

      You really do fall in love with Loretta and her spirit over the course of the film. You end up wanting to get to know her better. I get the sense that is the effect she has on people in real life, too.

    • kevin w April 28, 2010 at 10:23 pm

      It also made no mention of The Wilburn Brothers involvement in Loretta’s career.

      • Occasional Hope April 29, 2010 at 1:55 am

        Weren’t they in the middle of a legal dispute at the time?

      • J.R. Journey April 29, 2010 at 10:25 am

        I’m not sure about during the making of the actual movie, but Loretta says she was in a legal battle with the Wilburns when she wrote the book Coal Miner’s Daughter, and since the movie is based on that book, I’d say that’s why they’re left out.

        Any printed biographies should mention them for allowing her a shot in Music City. But if it hadn’t been the Wilburns, it would have been somebody else.

  6. Razor X April 29, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Yes, the Wilburns were left out of the film because of the legal dispute. She touches on this a bit in her second book. It could also have been partially due to the need to keep the film down to two hours. Conway Twitty is not mentioned in the film, either.

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