Tragic tale of country singer Patsy Cline

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Nobody could have predicted the ups and downs of Patsy Cline's dramatic life. She became a giant on the country-music scene, and also made her name as a ``crossover'' star in the pop world. Yet widespread notice came only a few years before her untimely death in a plane crash.

Her offstage life, meanwhile, was a regular roller coaster. Her first marriage ended in divorce, caught between her ambition and her husband's lack of it. Her second marriage lasted to the end of her life, but was torn by emotional and even physical strife. Although her income grew along with her fame, she never found the inner peace and stability she yearned for.

It sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood movie -- especially after the hit ``Coal Miner's Daughter,'' which chronicled the life of country singer Loretta Lynn and featured Cline as a minor character. So it's not surprising that Hollywood has latched onto Cline's story for a ``biopic'' in the old tradition, full of romance and pathos and grand gestures.

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What lifts ``Sweet Dreams'' a notch above the ordinary is the quiet intelligence of director Karel Reisz, who looks beyond plain facts to their larger implications. He gives plenty of attention to the love-story angle, never trampling its drama in a rush to expose ``the dark side of the American dream,'' or some such fashionable theme. In his usual thoughtful way he also explores contrasts and contradictions in the lives of his characters, focusing sharply on the gap between their aspirations and achiev ements. The film's main concern is the turbulent relationship between Cline and Charlie Dick, her second husband. But its most forceful insights are found in episodes dealing with Cline's career, and the security that eluded her even as her material fortunes soared.

The impetus for ``Sweet Dreams'' came from producer Bernard Schwartz, who was so struck with the popularity of ``Coal Miner's Daughter'' -- and so convinced that more gold waited in the country-music mine -- that he spent a year collecting Cline material into a lengthy journal. This he handed to Robert Getchell, the writer of ``Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,'' who put together the screenplay.

As directed by Reisz, the finished film isn't a ``feel good'' picture like the Loretta Lynn opus, and I doubt it will score a similar hit. But country singers make good movie heroes with their sturdy, self-made ways; and the Cline story is involving even when it turns unhappy and finally tragic.

Reisz seemed an unlikely choice to direct ``Sweet Dreams,'' since his best films have dealt with more complex material, from ``Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'' through ``The Gambler'' and ``Who'll Stop the Rain.'' But his English-bred sensibility lends freshness to material that could have seemed old hat, and he works smoothly with his carefully chosen cast, headed by Jessica Lange -- as fierce and persuasive as ever -- and Ed Harris. Together they give us a memorable portrait, if a harrowing one.

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