It's called "Sweet Dreams," the story of country-western warbler Patsy Cline, but it's really closer to "The Same Old Song": Singer finds success, learns success isn't all it's cracked up to be, dies in plane crash. All true -- but "Sweet Dreams" makes you feel like an awful sourpuss for complaining. Thrumming with the electric rapport between Jessica Lange and Ed Harris (and screen writer Robert Getchell's sparky dialogue), the movie's darn near irresistible.
"Sweet Dreams" traces Cline (Lange) from honky-tonk honey to Hank Williamsdom, from the gin palaces of Winchester, Va., to the Grand Ole Opry. Tagging along for the ride (and it's a bumpy one) is her lover and later husband, Charlie Dick (Harris), daytime linotypist, nighttime Lothario.
Charlie's a good ol' boy, but he's a bad ol' boy, too -- he likes a sip now and then, and when he's not cheating on Patsy, he's beating on Patsy. Part of what "Sweet Dreams" is about is the toll a wife's success takes on a proud southern man: no surprise. The rest is about how Patsy wants to "make it right" (as we're endlessly reminded) but never can, how her girlish vision of success and happiness and a house with yellow roses comes to naught. No surprise there, either.
In fact, there's not a single surprise in the movie, and Karel Reisz's restrained, tasteful direction doesn't help any. The songs (Lange lip-syncs from actual recordings Cline made between 1960 and 1963) aren't integrated into the story -- lovely as they are, they interrupt the flow. Reisz's attempts at lyricism (like a late-night slow dance in a nightclub parking lot) have no tension or freshness -- you see every move of the camera two steps ahead. Instead of digging into their heroine, Reisz and Getchell are content with the movie's fatuous irony -- a woman who "wants it all," but doesn't get it. They reduce Patsy Cline to just another New York Magazine profile.
This isn't tragedy -- it's melodrama. But when was a stale, conventional melodrama this much fun? Lange's Patsy is full of war whoops and weighted with brass; heavier here, she's busting out of her stretch pants, apt enough for a character who can't be contained. Pasty-faced and plain, Lange is bent on undercutting her conventional, kittenish sex appeal ("King Kong," begone!), replacing it with a yelping joy in life that ends up even sexier. In "Sweet Dreams," Lange doesn't look sexy -- she acts sexy.
Watching her sing, or her impromptu household cowboy-booted tap dance and kitchen hoochie-koochie, Harris' blue goggle-eyes light up -- his Charlie is the only one who gets as much pleasure out of Patsy Cline as Patsy Cline. He gets a kick out of loving her, and he gets a kick out of butting heads with her, too -- this may be the most gloriously contentious romance since "Adam's Rib."
"White! White!" Charlie taunts; and when Patsy wonders what on earth he's up to, he says, "I want to see if you say 'black.' " "Hell, Charlie's always good," she says later, "except when he isn't." Screen writer Getchell's peerless ear captures the lacy intricacies of native speech -- it's down-home baroque, in which every sentence is backed into, where every exclamation comes with its own phrase of fanfare: "Christ on the cross . . ."; "Lord knows . . ."
Some spoilsports will point out that "Sweet Dreams" has almost nothing to do with Patsy Cline's real life -- Charlie Dick, for example, was apparently far worse than the sometime wife-beater this sanitized version makes him out to be, and the challenges Cline faced in her career were more complex than rags-to-riches. In a way, they're right -- by neatening and streamlining Cline's story, Getchell and Reisz have arrived at something far less interesting than real life. "Sweet Dreams" doesn't draw you in the way, say, "Coal Miner's Daughter" (the story of Loretta Lynn) did, but it does entertain. And that good, Patsy Cline might have said, is good enough.