Treasure in a dull year

Coal Miner's Daughter Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm. Directed by Michael Apted. Loretta Lynn didn't start out as the "queen of country music." In fact, she was a poor mountain girl from Kentucky, raised in poverty and ignorance. If we can believe the new movie about her life -- based on her own autobiography -- it was her husband who took a shine to her singing, bought her a git-tar, and enthusiastically cajoled, nagged, and wheedled her up the ladder of success.

Yet, it sounds like an old Hollywood movie. And it looks like an old Hollywood movie, too, the way Michael Apted tells the tale in "Coal Miner's Daughter." This is a "bio-pic" in the ancient tradition: There's no suspense about the outcome, but barrels of fun to be had along way. The characters are warm, the situations are real, and the soundtrack positively vibrates with good old country sounds.

Sissy Spacek's portrayal of the title role is at the heart of the film's success. She had earned her formidable reputation largely for off-beat, even bizarre roles in such audacious pictures as "3 Women," "Carrie," and "Badlands." There's nothing audacious about "Coal Miner's Daughter," but Miss Spacek seems utterly at home -- enough so to do her own singing, in her own sprightly country style. It's an affectionate and utterly credible performance, by a young woman who has developed into one of Hollywood's most important actresses.

She gets excellent support, too, from Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Levon Helm (of the rock group called the Band) as her father, and Beverly D'Angelo as her mentor, country vocalist Patsy Cline. The smaller roles are handled with grit and authenticity by a large and colorful cast.

Director Apted gets the credit for pulling all these people into a mellow ensemble of actors and singers and for sailing the story along at a smooth and effortless pace. This is a sweet movie, most of the way: Husbands and wives may fight, but they love each other; and when two country stars meet, they become best friends instead of rivals.

Mr. Lynn develops a drinking problem as a result of his loneliness, after his wife achieves stardom, but he is seen to conquer his difficulty and come to terms with his life. Similarly, Mrs. Lynn herself suffers emotional upsets caused by the speed and unpredictability of her superstar career. Again, however, the depiction of such difficulties is restrained, and the emphasis is on the solutions that are eventually found.

Though "Coal miner's Daughter" is a long and expansive movie, it is often surprisingly subtle and underplayed. a brief solo scene by Mr. Jones, in which he has a late-night phone conversation with a troubled fan, speaks worlds about the stresses that lie beneath the glittery surface of the country-music world. The death of Mrs. Lynn's most cherished confidante could have provided 15 minutes of melodrama; instead it's handled in just a few seconds, and has all the more impact as a result. For all its Grand Ole Opry-style subject matter, this is a thoughtful and caring film -- one of the unexpected treasures of an otherwise disappointing movie year.

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