COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER -- AMC Carrollton, Buckingham, Jefferson, Jenifer, K-B Langley, Laurel Ginema, Roth's Tysons Corner and Springfield Mall.
People who stay away from "Coal Miner's Daughter" because they don't like "hillbilly music" will be missing out on a lot more than country tunes. Michael Apted's film biography of legendary country-music singer Loretta Lynn is humorous, insightful and frequently very moving. But be warned: You may find yourself a born-again Grand Ole Opry fan by the time you leave the theater.
A summary of Lynn's rags-to-riches life -- a scruffy backwoods kid, she married at 13, had her first baby at 14 and was singing her way, as they say, into the hearts of millions before she was 30 -- sounds like the handiwork of an especially sappy Hollywood publicist. It would have been easy to crank out a Cinderella-style story. Instead, screenwriter Tom Rickman, drawing on the honesty and humor of Lynn's best-selling autobiography, has chosen to deal with all aspects of her success. The result is touching much of the time, and if the film occasionally bogs down with clumsy editing and too much detail, the end result rewards your patience.
Director Apted is most effective when recreating Lynn's childhood home, the coal-mining town of Butcher Hollow, Tennessee. The grimy world of Appalachia is subtly illustrated in a thousand tiny ways -- the pinched faces of the miners as they come off shift, the weary look in Loretta's mother's eyes as she totes her babies around. Levon Helm and Phyllis Boyens, both country musicians, are beautifully restrained and dignified as Loretta's parents.
Sissy Spacek continues to prove herself one of the truly gifted actresses of recent years in her role as Loretta. It's a difficult part, following the singer's growth from childhood through middle age. Spacek pulls it off, though she's more convincing as a wide-eyed teenager and frazzled young mother than she is as the older Loretta. She also turns out to be a talented country singer (she and Beverly D'Angelo, you plays another C&W legend, Patsy Cline, do all their own singing).
The story is just as much about the growth of Loretta's husband Doo (short for Doolittle, aka Mooney, short for Moonshine), and Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as the endearingly macho good ol' boy who masterminds his wife's way to the top. Much about their relationship would make your average "enlightened" woman cringe. It's the sort of arrangement where, when he suggests they hire "one of them babysitters" and go to a neighborhood honky-tonk, she stares in disbelief and says "You mean together?" But he loves her and she doesn't complain because, hail, you know men. And though his manipulation of her career would put John Derek to shame, his motives are pure; the love and pride on his face as he hears his wife's voice on the car radio excuse a lot.
Then the kid in the fringed cowgirl suit goes bouffant, and Doo becomes Mr. Loretta Lynn. He drinks; she pops pills. When she finally breaks down onstage in a packed concert hall, the only question is how come it took so long.
Apted becomes less eloquent as their story progresses. He seems determined to hit every single milestone in Loretta's life, with the result that many events are just touched on before he hurries on to the next one. Some problems are acknowledged, but dealt with only superficially. She's always leaving her children, for example, but we never see them acting lonely or hostile; they stand in a row and wave like angels when she leaves. And her recovery from her well-publicized nervous breakdown is simply not discussed at all. Time passes and all of a sudden she's back onstage belting out her hit song, "Coal Miner's Daughter."
But when the credits come on, with their accompanying flashback shots of her childhood in the mountains, we're reminded with a jolt how far she's come, and that she has managed to do so while remaining relatively level-headed, sane and human. At that poignant moment, nobody in the audience will feel much like quibbling at all.