Leave it to Dolly Parton to bring out an innocuously sweet, faith-based, prime-time Christmas movie right in the middle of a religious and political culture war over who gets to say what, believe what, or live wherever and however they choose. We’re all at each other’s throats these days, but wait — what’s that gentle guitar melody comin’ from the misty Tennessee holler? Y’all hear what I hear?
“Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” airing Thursday on NBC, is a plainly told, tenderly acted and well-intentioned two-hour movie that draws from the lyrics of Parton’s 1971 hit ballad about the little girl (Parton herself, as fans know) who proudly wore to school the coat that her mother sewed together from leftover scraps and rags, only to suffer the cruel taunts of other children. The song’s blunt lessons of humility and self-worth are expanded here into a fuller narrative that’s based on some other events from Parton’s “dirt-poor” girlhood in the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1950s.
Towheaded Alyvia Alyn Lind stars as a precocious 9-year-old Dolly, the sassafras-iest member of the Parton clan. (There are eight kids, with another on the way.) She gets into fights, she steals, she skips school and she storms into church with her face garishly painted in lipstick and eye shadow to belt out a gospel tune. “Dolly Parton, aren’t you at all interested in goin’ to heaven?” asks her preacher grandfather (Gerald McRaney).
“Well, sure I am, Gran’pa, but do I have to look like hell to get there?” Dolly replies.
“Coat of Many Colors” probably won’t win any writing or acting prizes, but there’s something pure-hearted and credible about it, if you’re willing to let it in. When Dolly’s mother, Avie (played with impressive resolve by country singer Jennifer Nettles), gives birth prematurely to a son who dies, the Parton family plunges into grief. Marital discord takes over, as Dolly’s tobacco-farming father, Lee (Ricky Schroder, now entering the rugged Cialis demographic), moves out to the barn after a series of heated arguments.
For a Dolly Parton special that begins and ends with the 69-year-old legend herself greeting viewers from a sparkly Christmas sleigh in the middle of her Dollywood theme park, there are some thoughtful and even carefully considered conversations here about theology, God’s will and scripture.
More notably, there is surprisingly frank (yet family-appropriate) talk about relationships and intimacy. The story hangs on the fact that the Parton children understand that the most private aspects of Mama’s and Daddy’s happiness are also what keep the household intact. Only when the movie is over — after a million commercial breaks and a final scene where a computer-generated butterfly circles the hillside grave of the lost baby — will viewers realize they’ve just been schooled in old-fashioned family values.
“Coat of Many Colors” has a similarly soft, benign approach to its religious message. Throughout the movie, it’s understood that Lee’s grief and worries won’t pass until he accompanies his wife and children into the church headed by his father-in-law and truly receives the Word. The screenplay, by Pamela K. Long, doesn’t shy away from mentions of Jesus and eternal salvation, but it’s also not a hard sell; unlike a lot of faith-centric counterprogramming, “Coat of Many Colors” doesn’t seem to have a chip on its shoulder or an ax to grind. In the Dolly Parton worldview, fire and brimstone serve merely as caricature traits of old-time religion; she’s far more concerned with how a decent upbringing can instill a welcoming heart. Her life lessons culminate in friendly platitudes that could fit on a needlepoint sampler in a Dollywood gift shop.
And that’s fine. In an American society currently giving voice to those who claim to want their country back and wish to see things dialed back a half-century or more, “Coat of Many Colors” might seem like the right sort of medicine. After all, it’s airing just one week after racists were taking to Twitter to disparage NBC’s superb staging of “The Wiz,” a live musical with an all-black cast.
But that hateful noise and nonsense doesn’t have much truck with the Parton belief system, nor does it reflect the enormous celebrity goodwill she engenders just by walking into a room. (If you’ve never seen Dolly Parton walk into a roomful of people, I highly recommend it. She instantly captures the attention of all — young and old, every race and persuasion. She is human sunshine.)
It’s regrettably true that her holiday movie doesn’t feature one minority character, but to view “Coat of Many Colors” as an antidote to multiculturalism, secularism and political correctness would be to miss the point entirely. It would be similarly futile to apply outrage to the movie’s bleached whiteness, which, after all, is probably just reflecting the segregated reality of the retrograde world it portrays.
Describing her dreams of becoming famous, little Dolly tells her mother: “If’n I can hold God’s attention, I can hold the world’s.” In her dolled-up, down-home way, Parton seems determined to teach her fans to love one another at least as much as they love her.
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (two hours) airs 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC.