Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Nine

#49 — Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980)
Film biographies of famed musicians follow the same trajectory with such unwavering rigor that they’ve practically become a cliche unto themselves. The humble beginnings are traced. Then the rise to notoriety begins, often marked by others recognizing an uncommon talent from the very moment a microphone is met. The climb continues, becoming more perilous, until some tragic setback occurs. Usually it ends with a stirring rejuvenation, probably based more on a hat tip to the performer’s legendary status than any actual, specific accomplishment. Coal Miner’s Daughter isn’t a terrific movie because it upends these expectations. Indeed, it set the template for more recent offerings like Taylor Hackford’s Ray and James Mangold’s Walk the Line. What makes the film special is a choice so simple that it’s striking it even needs to be remarked upon. No matter what stature its subject has achieved, the filmmakers never lose sight of the need to make their movie about a person instead of an icon.

In adapting Loretta Lynn’s autobiography (written with George Vecsey), screenwriter Tom Rickman and director Michael Apted hone in on the country singer’s relationship with her husband, Doolittle Lynn. First married when Loretta was a teenager (and a young teenager at that), they have a full brood of kids and a stretch of complicated history before she ever steps onto a stage, which in turn adds many wrinkles. Their partnership is marked by strain and infidelity, warmth and support. It is, fittingly, a country song played out in humble houses, family roadsters and, eventually, tour buses. While there’s at least one amusing nod as to how their combustible relationship may have fueled Loretta Lynn’s creativity, the movie is mostly concerned with exploring their bond as its own reward. It revels in the complexities built into their relationship, heightened by the fact that both are portrayed as highly strong-willing people, and never stoops to the merely sweet or overly romanticized. Embedded in the film is a admiring acknowledgment of the enduring messiness of life.

A key part of the formulation that makes the film work is the splendid acting, chiefly Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Tommy Lee Jones as Doolittle Lynn. Spacek’s grand achievement was celebrated and commemorated many ways, including the presentation of a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar. It still bears reiterating just how strong the work is, and how startling different it is from her most notable film work to that point, which was dominated by shrinking souls with an a capacity to explode. Since she plays the character from her teenage years into womanhood (it’s hard to think of another actress at the time who could have done this convincingly), there are glimmers of the innocence she’d applied in other roles, but there’s also no mistaking that her Loretta Lynn is a firebrand from the beginning, willing to grab a stick a chase off a woman flirting with her man or take charge of any situation that comes her way. She’s matched ideally by Jones, who approaches the role with the quiet craftiness that would become his calling card. He captures Doolittle’s no-nonsense brashness that was integral to pushing Loretta to share her voice with the world, and also shows the wounded vulnerability that would drive his less respectable decisions.

Though he’s signed his names to many fictional films, Apted is arguably most respected for his work on documentaries like the Up series and Incident at Oglala, and he brings that devotion to rigid truthfulness to this film. It unfolds with a sturdy sense of time, place and people, certain that the most fitting way to honor its subject is to proceed with no false notes.