Folks going to see the Patsy Cline biofilm "Sweet Dreams" expecting to find something along the lines of "Coal Miner's Daughter" may be shocked to find instead a one-couple version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Despite three outstanding performances (Jessica Lange as Cline, Ed Harris as husband Charlie Dick and Ann Wedgeworth as Patsy's mother), "Sweet Dreams" has little to do with the central motivations of Cline's life -- country music and stardom -- and everything to do with Hollywood's (or in this case, HBO's) perceptions of what today's audiences hanker for.
In fact, by the time "Sweet Dreams" is finished, Patsy Cline fans may be excused for wondering, "Whose life was that, anyway?"
There have been only a few pop-oriented biofilms in the past decade. "Coal Miner's Daughter," based on Loretta Lynn's autobiography, and "The Buddy Holly Story" have been the best, though they've had their share of credibility problems. Two Dick Clark television films, "Elvis!" and "Birth of the Beatles," were better than one could have hoped for from either television or Clark. And then there was Ken Russell's "Lisztomania" with Roger Daltrey (best forgotten).
In recent years, the slack has been taken up by rockumentaries and long-form videobios ("Stand by Me: A Portrait of Julian Lennon" is about to hit the streets) that offer the real thing.
It's an old tradition, of course. The first talkie, "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, was a sort of biofilm on singer Al Jolson (his story was more accurately retold in "The Jolson Story" and "Jolson Sings Again"), and there has been a steady stream of vapid entertainments ever since, including such popular hits as "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954), "The Benny Goodman Story" (1955) and "Your Cheatin' Heart," the 1964 Hank Williams biofilm. While these films aren't exactly proliferating, they're proving to be hardy perennials: biofilms on Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Charlie Parker are in the works.
Unlike the more plentiful rockumentaries, musical biofilms tend to be more films than bios. They are not intended for purists, who supposedly already know the "true story," or for fans, who will tend to hold up their precious memories against interpretation. The target is the mass audience, which isn't always going to know Al Jolson from Al Capone, or Patsy Cline from Robert Klein.
Thus the producer of "Your Cheatin' Heart" could say without a trace of embarrassment, "We didn't go for any art in it. We had to exaggerate a lot of spots and make a lot of points that didn't really exist, just to get a story out of it" -- and so what if the story bore only a surface resemblance to reality and took massive liberties in its retelling?
While in "Sweet Dreams" musical developments seem to take place mostly off screen, "The Buddy Holly Story" and "Coal Miner's Daughter" both offered contexts for their subjects' development. "Coal Miner's Daughter" was based on Lynn's own perceptions and "The Buddy Holly Story" was based (some thought too loosely) on John Goldrosen's outstanding biography. This at least allowed the filmmakers to tell the stories from the inside, from the aspirations and the dreams of their protagonists. You got a sense of history, not one of psychosexual analysis. Lynn, Holly and Cline are all emotionally complex characters,) but only the first two are treated with respect by the filmmakers.
Perhaps because Cline is more obscure than Lynn (who's still alive) and Holly (who also died in a plane crash), "Sweet Dreams" creaks toward the "Mommie Dearest" school of biography, where sensationalism substitutes for substance.
In the old days, this was never a problem, since films tended to soft-pedal the downs (the Hank Williams biofilm actually omitted the cause of his death -- a heart attack brought on by excessive drinking) in order to play up a procession of hit tunes. But we're a long way from "The Helen Morgan Story" or "The Eddy Duchin Story" or "With a Song In My Heart," pictures that had their hard edges and tearjerker ethos but never descended into the narrow arena of marital sordidness that is "Sweet Dreams' " major failing.
By favoring the dramatic over the musical, "Sweet Dreams" obviates the Winchester, Va., singer's 15-year struggle for commercial success and squanders her considerable art by portraying her as just another celebrity battered wife. It ignores her considerable success and her essential toughness, and even manages to soften her up in the process. Cline was nobody's angel, but she was also nobody's fool (though she was, perhaps, Charlie Dick's patsy).
"Sweet Dreams' " deceptions originate in the vacuum in which producer Bernard Schwartz and director Karel Reisz place Cline. Unlike "Coal Miner's Daughter," which Schwartz also produced, "Sweet Dreams" has no revealing context -- musical, social, historical, psychological -- to suggest Cline's personal history or inspiration. The film features none of Cline's influences and none of her peers -- no Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Brenda Lee, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Jimmy Dean. There is nothing about her big heart, or her intense ambition (the latter is written off as a desire for a small house surrounded by flowers) so that you actually end up learning more about what made Patsy run in Beverly D'Angelo's cameo of her in "Coal Miner's Daughter."
There also is nothing about Cline's penchant for acting like one of the boys -- drinking, swearing, sleeping around -- or about the tenuous position of women in country music in the '50s and early '60s, or about how Cline was trapped by the conventions of the times and the industry. Her ultimate success is attributed to a producer's decision to have her do love songs. The rest is reduced to conjugal confusion and domestic squabbling, interspersed with major accidents, the last one fatal.
The danger is that "Sweet Dreams" now becomes the official take on Patsy Cline as a person, performer and key figure in country music during an important transitional phase, and it's much too shallow for that. Robert Getchell, who wrote the script, either didn't know about Ellis Nassour's exhaustive Cline biography, published in 1981, or he chose to ignore it. Certainly the liberties he has taken with Cline's life cannot be excused as dramatic license, and the excuse that "Sweet Dreams" is about a woman -- not an artist -- doesn't hold water. The production notes insist that the film will be "charting the most dramatic years of her efforts to become a top country singer," but what we're left with is Cline's efforts to survive her marriage to Charlie Dick, with the music reduced to incidental status. "
But it becomes almost irrelevant that this was Cline's life. The conflicts portrayed could have applied to any '50s couple in which the wife was ambitious and independent and the husband was a roustabout lush whose macho insecurities turned him into a lout. Why saddle Cline with these problems when she had enough challenges in her music?
The irony is that, with the natural drama of Cline's life, the movie could have told the truth and still been commercial, a lesson Schwartz should have remembered from "Coal Miner's Daughter." But he didn't, and as a result, "Sweet Dreams" misrepresents the historical role of its main character.
In the decade before "Sweet Dreams" begins, Patsy Cline had already become a seasoned veteran of both concerts and television (on Jimmy Dean's "Town and Country Jamboree," right here in Washington) and something of a regional star (a 1956 Washington Star magazine cover story defined her as "The Hillbilly with Oomph!"). "Sweet Dreams" would have you believe she was just another roadhouse sweetheart whose breaks simultaneously included heart (meeting Charlie Dick) and career (getting a spot on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scout" show).
Taking the bookend route, there's also the matter of Cline's death -- the plane sheared treetops and plunged into the ground, not into a mountain, as the film has it -- and her funeral, portrayed in the film as a rather lonely affair attended by about 50 people. In fact, Cline's funeral was the biggest thing to hit Winchester outside of the annual Apple Blossom Festival, with 12,000 people lining the procession route and thousands more at the cemetery grabbing away at any souvenir they could get their hands on.
In between, "Sweet Dreams" makes dozens of minor mistakes (Cline wasn't allowed to wear her treasured cowgirl outfit on the Godfrey show) as well as some errors of judgment, the major one being to deny the creative core of a singer who treated lyrics as an actress would dialogue and who seemed to live, literally and figuratively, every song that she sang. Ironically, Schwartz and Reisz seem to be trying to distill Cline's life into the film equivalent of a quintessential three-minute honky tonk ballad. It doesn't work.
That the film's producers were not country music fans is evident not only from their own statement to that effect, but from their insulting use of rock 'n'and roll as background music. The central passion of Patsy Cline's life was country music, and her greatest fear all down the line was that her music was getting too pop, leaving the country behind. For that very reason, she hated all the songs that made her a star even as she buried herself in the Nashville network of country music traditions.
Seeing "Sweet Dreams" makes one fearful for future projects like the Marvin Gaye and Charlie Parker biofilms. While there is no way -- and no need -- to obscure the sex and drug angles, it would be criminal to emphasize them at the expense of the considerable art these musicians created. For most fans, these artists will always be remembered for their public music, not for their private obsessions.
In this age of full disclosure, that's obviously not enough. But you'll never learn as much about Patsy Cline from watching "Sweet Dreams" as you could from listening to her best album. In the end, it becomes an actor's film, not a musician's tribute.