“If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices; coal mine, moonshine or move it on down the line.”
Loretta Lynn is pretty famous. Famous enough that I know her name. Famous enough that I know she was a country singer. Famous enough that they made a biopic about her. Famous enough the I knew that movie existed 35 years after it was made. But not famous enough that I know any more than that about her. So is her story interesting and worth telling? Well, Coal Miner’s Daughter never really proved that to me.
It’s the 40s in Kentucky, which means the 14 year old Loretta (soon to be) Lynn (Sissy Spacek) is old enough to be considered a woman. When she’s not helping raise one of her dozen or so siblings, she’s busy being wooed by Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones). Back from the war, he’s a cocky loudmouth who takes what he wants, and decides he wants the teenaged Loretta. Against his better wishes, her father (Levon Helm as the titular coal miner) gives his blessing and soon Doolittle has knocked up Loretta no less than four times.
Buying her a guitar for their anniversary, Doolittle encourages Loretta to play and sing. As she gets better, he decides its time his wife hit the stage. Soon, Doolittle is managing Loretta’s growing career, arranging a recording session and personally taking her music to country music DJs and radio stations. Every time Loretta plays, everyone who witnesses it knows they’re seeing something special, none more than Doolittle.
I knew nothing about Loretta Lynn before watching Coal Miner’s Daughter. I couldn’t even name a single one of her signature tunes. So at the very least, it was a fresh story that had plenty of surprises. The biggest being that it’s as much Doolittle Lynn’s story as it his Loretta’s. According to the movie, his drive was just as important in Loretta Lynn’s career as her songs were.
And the best thing about the character of Doolittle being so prominent, is that you get to watch a youngish Tommy Lee Jones really go to town. He really chews the scenery and dives head first into this role. It’s obvious the idea of ‘too big’ or ‘too over the top’ was never a concern for Jones on set.
Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter and it was nominated or a bunch more. That surprises me. Because while it’s in no way a bad movie, it doesn’t really seem substantial enough to have got so much Oscar attention. In some ways, it’s not much more than a feature length soap opera. But, this is the same year that the thoroughly average Ordinary People won Best Picture (beating Ragin Bull), so I guess standards were a little different then.