Film Discussion

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) – Music in the Movies

Music and movies have frequently gone hand-in-hand together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.

There are several ways that one can ensure an Academy Award nomination, but near the top of the list must surely be portraying a real-life figure. Add a musical talent and chances are you’re making the trip to that stage to make an impassioned speech with many thank yous and even some shedding of tears.

The silver screen loves a good biopic. You can never go wrong with a story inspired by real-life that allows talented actresses and actors to pretend to be someone that really existed, bringing a true-life tale to cinematic life. When it comes to musicians and music stars, Hollywood has frequently had a knack for wanting to explore the lives of those who make music and achieve worldwide fame, capturing the glories and fallbacks that come with the territory.

As far back as 1951’s The Great Caruso, an account of the life of Enrico Caruso which saw Mario Lanza playing the famed singer, there has been a novelty in watching figures who have pioneered and achieved great fame – not to mention artistic integrity – through making music, having their stories recreated with big-name casts and directors.

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Released into cinemas in 1980, the story of Loretta Lynn could have just simply been a nuts-and-bolts biographical account of the country singer’s life. Instead, there’s a genuinely different flavour to Coal Miner’s Daughter that makes it stand out from a crowd of films that will be explored here over the next several weeks. That’s not to say that the film is a staggeringly original one; it’s not, but neither does it ever feel perfunctory or come across like a Wikipedia entry that has been adapted for the big screen.

Right from its opening scenes, director Michael Apted and writer Tom Rickman never make obvious choices. Beginning in the muddy forests and surrounding mountains of Butcher Hollow in Kentucky, eventually finding its way to the stages of The Grand Ole Opry, there is great emphasis placed on a sense of naturalism, both atmospherically in the opening third, and emotionally in the latter stages.

The obvious thing to say is just how wonderful Sissy Spacek is here. The actress had cornered a small market in playing troubled young women, still in their teen years and having to navigate their way through increasing strife and horrifying circumstances. This was best exemplified by her work in Terrence Malick’s acclaimed debut Badlands, and again a few years later in the instantly iconic adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.

© 1980 Universal City Studios, Inc.

The film is neatly divided into a clear three-act structure as we watch the beginnings of Loretta’s relationship with future husband Doolittle Lynn, played by the forever watchable Tommy Lee Jones, before realising her musical talent and going on the road to make records and promote them, eventually becoming one of the biggest names in the country music genre.

Rags-to-riches is one of the oldest of all stories. However, there is a potent spark to so much of it that while the film plays in a pool of narrative cliches you might feel like you’ve seen a million times before, Apted’s realistic but empathetic direction, and the performances of Spacek and Jones draw you into the story’s orbit.

Like the best documentaries or re-enactments of real-life figures you may not have a vested interest in or are fully aware of, the film works by making you care deeply about its story and true-life character. Coal Miner’s Daughter may eventually settle into the world of country music and the industry around it, but it’s never solely about that genre. Certainly, you will hear a lot of Lynn’s music here, not to mention a dollop of Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo walking into the film for a brief period of time to powerful effect), but this is a narrative that is as centred on the marriage of Loretta and Doolittle as it is about songwriting and singing.

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While it isn’t always the case with every musical biopic, the film gains considerable power by having its cast sing the songs throughout as opposed to being dubbed over by tracks of the actual performers. The end credits boast, subtly and proudly, that all the singing has been performed by Spacek and D’Angelo. It’s the type of thing that Academy Award voters love, and unsurprisingly Spacek won the Oscar for her work here. If this was just simply a nuts-and-bolts account of Loretta Lynn’s life, then the film may not have proven to have the pulling power that makes it something of a high benchmark for the biopic genre.

While offering an exploration of gender politics is not the sole intention, at least from a screenplay point of view, to watch the film in 2021 proves an interesting experience. The opening third and its portrayal of Loretta’s life as the daughter of a coal miner who finds herself falling into the orbit of an older man, eventually marrying him, and leaving home to the heartbreak of her family, means that we witness a story involving a fifteen-year-old fall into a relationship with a twenty-two-year-old and eventually having to have sex with him on her wedding night to her clearly vocalised reluctance.

The latter scene plays in a very complex manner today, especially considering #TimesUp and #MeToo. Loretta protests at Oliver’s attempt to initiate sex, but the scene after makes light of it in a way that says quite a bit about how issues of consent amongst married couples were viewed during the film’s initial 1940s setting, but also amongst storytellers of the early 1980s. There’s a whole other film to be made on that subject alone, but this is a musical biopic where the stage is waiting for the film’s triumphant conclusion and so any further explorations of this are not forthcoming.

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What gives Tom Rickman’s screenplay and Apted’s direction a dramatic charge is when they take time to explore the tiny details of Loretta and Doolittle’s married life. Their family becomes larger with the passing of time, but once her singing voice becomes unavoidably evident, amazingly the film posits the couple as a single unit working towards making Loretta’s career and dreams come true.

Of course, there must be drama, and the more fame that Loretta achieves, the more her husband becomes belligerent and resentful at being a spouse who can only sit on the sidelines. The relationship runs the gamut from being a genuinely supportive and loving one, as we watch a husband do his part to help his wife achieve her goals, to bordering on toxic as he finds himself reacting with disdain to the level of success that she has.

Inevitably, they find their way back to each other after her emotional breakdown on stage and they find an equilibrium that allows them to balance family and her artistic ambitions, and the film ends on a positive note for them where they jokingly argue about the placement of a bedroom in their new house, one that he is building for her with a view of the surrounding countryside reminiscent of their early life in Kentucky.

© 1980 Universal City Studios, Inc.

Simultaneously acclaimed and yet underrated at the same time, Michael Apted had a knack for naturalism in his productions, no doubt an influence from his background working in documentaries. His most famous work was the iconic Up, an ongoing series that followed its subjects over the course of their lives, returning to them every seven years in a truly fascinating filmmaking experiment that proved itself to be an insightful exploration of humanity, youth-into-adulthood and growing up.

A large majority of his film projects were ones that placed considerable focus on female figures. Prior to Coal Miner’s Daughter, Apted had directed Agatha, a speculative piece surrounding the eleven-day period Agatha Christie disappeared, while at the end of the eighties he helmed Gorillas in the Mist, an acclaimed account centred on the life of Dian Fossey and with it a superb career-defining performance from Sigourney Weaver. Even his contribution to the James Bond franchise, The World is Not Enough, featured one of the series’ all-time great female characters, Sophie Marceau’s portrayal of the Bond Woman-turned-villainess Elektra King.

Being helmed by a British director with a documentary background was something that Loretta Lynn believed was a major reason the film’s opening third and depiction of her teen years was so effective. The portrayal of Kentucky mountain life could so easily have brought with it a descent into stereotypes more synonymous with The Beverly Hillbillies, but instead there is something palpable about its depiction of Loretta’s teenage life and her family that feels very real and raw. You can feel the cold air and the threat of rain hanging over every scene.

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Its grounded style allows the film (no pun intended) to sing. When Patsy Cline shows up for a stretch, the focus on Loretta’s friendship with the famous singer feels down to earth and poignant, something made even more powerful given that the screenplay and direction never overplay the foreshadowing regarding Cline’s tragic death. Spacek and D’Angelo play their friendship so charmingly and with such genuine warmth that you almost wish that Cline were around just a little bit more.

As for Spacek and Jones, while the relationship and marriage of Loretta and Doolittle will no doubt invite much in the way of debate (as it should), the two of them are the beating heart of the film. Maybe that’s what the film’s genuine drive is; it’s not about the songs, it’s not about the singing or the eventual fame and fortune that comes with it. It is, in the end, a story about marriage, and with it some of the ugliness and complexities that come from one born of a time that’s so long ago.

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