In the middle of last night I woke up and heard Loretta Lynn on the radio. It wasn’t one of her better songs. The sacharine sweetness of “Paper Roses” (even with its bitter-sweet tale of love gone wrong) lacks a lot of the feistiness I love about her work. Songs like “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ With Loving On Your Mind” and “One’s On The Way” reflect a “real world feminism” that really appeals to me. Or at least that’s the impression I’m left with having just watched “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on Foxtel, a film I’d seen several times before.
But until watching it again tonight, I’d forgotten just how much the early part of the film so clearly places Loretta as the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with very few options. Very early in the film, a friend of Loretta’s future husband declares, “Living in the mountains you got three choices. Coal miner. Moonshine. Or moving on down the line.” For women in the mountains, however, there were fewer choices, mostly limited to getting married and having babies (lots of babies), which Loretta of course does. The limited choices she has is summed up early in the movie when, on the verge of leaving the small mountain town in which she’s grown up, Loretta’s husband declares, “You have to make up your mind if you’re his daughter or my wife”. It’s no surprise then, that as Loretta becomes a successful country music singer, her husband doesn’t cope well with his wife’s success, providing both a dramatic device for character development and in the exploration of the “real world feminism” of a very personal kind. By the way, I use the phrase “real world feminism” not to put down feminist theory – quite the opposite – but in an effort to describe the personal manifestation of the political.
I think “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is also a very important landmark film, recognising with intelligence the legitimacy of country music and its associated stories. In many respects, it’s the film that allowed the recent Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line” to be made. The main difference, however, is that while I thought Joaquin Phoenix did a fine job acting as Johnny Cash, Sissy Spacek IS Loretta Lynn, with a totally honest and convincing performance. I also found the music, especially the hillbilly music of the early parts of the film, to be totally authentic. Who could not be moved by the performance of “Amazing Grace” at Loretta’s father’s funeral? Shying away from a cliched and half-expected solitary performance by Loretta, the song is led simply and mournfully by the preacher.
As Loretta’s life progresses – and she takes on the country music cliches of big hair – she maintains a wonderful authenticity. And I think it’s one of the reasons why the film works so well, as you can almost imagine your in her situation. It’s a wonderful, joyous film, and watching it was a really great way to spend a Monday night.