“Coal Miner's Daughter” won an Academy Award for Best Actress Sissy Spacek.
Michael Apted's best work remains largely in the documentary field, and in films that explore little-seen cultures. In “Thunderheart,” Apted interpolated such moments without the kind of condescension that's typical of a standard Hollywood thriller set in a Native American community. Using non-actors, sometimes controversial real-life figures, and pacing the film to show mundane aspects that can give secondary characters added dimensions, Apted's tactics are also evident in perhaps his finest film, “Coal Miner's Daughter” - his first American feature - about one of country music's most famous singers.
“If you're going to put the geography on the screen, don't just shoot the landscape – shoot the people,” explains Apted. In her extended interview featurette with the director, Loretta Lynn found the British director ideal for the film project, since he lacked exposure to the familiar Appalachian cliches and stereotypes that ‘clog the minds' of more conventional North American filmmakers.
You don't have to like country music to appreciate the engrossing drama of “Coal Miner's Daughter,” and Universal's DVD includes an informative, relaxed commentary between Apted and Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek. When filmmakers and their cast and crew create a unique film, their observations decades later are often tinged with an unmistakable warmth; it's a film that became a turning point in their respective careers, and maintains a strong popularity among fans of Loretta Lynn and movie watchers who prefer well-crafted dramas.
Apted and Spacek cover a fair amount of ground, and their memories frequently include fellow actors – particularly Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm, and Beverly D'Angelo – and the trials of shooting in isolated, untouched locations, where sometimes unhappy townspeople brandished shotguns, concerned that the Hollywood crew was aiming for unrestrained exploitation. The two also point out the myriad cameos: from real DJs, country music icons, and an unbilled role by Spacek's hubby, Art Director/Director Jack Fisk, as a stagehand at the Opry.
The most touching comments, however, concern the actors meeting, gaining inspiration from, and remaining faithful to their real-life counterparts.
Loretta Lynn's interview featurette adds to Spacek's own retelling of being selected by Lynn from other head shots of actresses for the proposed biopic; and spending a week with Lynn, where Spacek learned her vocal style, and became a worthy substitute on stage for a few performances at the Grand Old Opry. Lynn also elaborates on Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of her late husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and the many scenes that rang more than true for her in the final film – largely because Apted and screenwriter Tom Rickman added additional anecdotes and memories from conversations with Lynn in the finished script.
The lone oddity among the extras is an address by George Bush, Sr., to guests at the Sept. 1989 AFI 25th Anniversary gala. The president mentions “Coal Miner's Daughter” as an example of exemplary filmmaking – along with “Hoosiers” and a handful of others – but only as a segue to his points on positive role models, anti-drug messages, and ensuring U.S. filmmakers “unfettered” access to foreign markets. Besides a one-time name drop, the segment has no other connection to the film.
“Coal Miner's Daughter” enjoyed a successful theatrical run, which still draws fans to Lynn's Hurricane Mills estate that houses film props and various icons and artifacts from her lengthy career. Ralph Bode's Oscar-Nominated cinematography is beautifully presented in a clean transfer, with deep browns, greens and somber colours for the misty Appalachian sequences, and the elegant colours of the Opry and concert sequences, with good blacks and balanced contrasts. The sound mix is nicely balanced, and shows how good mono sound can be when constructed with professional care.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan