"From the Hills and Hollers" is a new film series hosted by the Athena Cinema in Athens, Ohio. Highlighting the ways in which Appalachian culture has been represented in film, the Athena Cinema will screen various films to connect the people to the region they inhabit but may not know much about.
On September 8, "From the Hills and Hollers" showed the first in a series of six films: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). If you are like me and had neither heard of the film nor its subject, Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter is a music biopic that received seven Academy nominations. Lynn herself has been dubbed the First Lady of Country Music and has been nominated for eighteen Grammys.
Originally named Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek), the singer hailed from Butcher Hollow – pronounced “holl-er” with the locals’ strong accent. Her family lived in poverty. Her dad was, you guessed it, a coal miner, while her mom tended to their small ranch and looked after her eight children.
After World War II, a local, known as Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones) for his lazy nature, hurtles back into Butcher Hollow in a brand new Jeep. Just back from serving in the military, his worldliness, either newly found or perpetual, leads him to believe he will never stoop so low as to become a coal miner like the rest of the men in town. But realizing that his aimless life is going down the wrong path, he pursues Loretta, marries her by the time she turns fifteen, and starts working in the mines.
Loretta believes that she and Doo are in love, and goes against her parents to be with him. However, she soon learns he’s not the man she thought. Doo also becomes demystified by their rushed romance. On their wedding night, he forces himself on Loretta and hits her the next morning when she confronts him. Not only is Doo a violent husband to Loretta, but Loretta is not the weak-willed wife that Doo thought he was getting. She punches back twice as hard, and if she goes, she goes kicking and screaming.
That turbulent relationship persists throughout the rest of the movie. They fight over Doo’s unfaithfulness, they butt heads at almost every decision, and they even separate for a period of time. With Doo being the breadwinner prior to Loretta’s fame, he consistently gets his way while Loretta goes along with it because she loves him. In fact, the film credits Doo with inspiring Loretta’s passion for singing which she later becomes famous for.
Although the film’s narrative implies that Doo launching her music career came from a belief that it was what Loretta wanted (she just didn’t know it), it’s hard to ignore how he doesn’t ask her what she wants until the single is already recorded. And more importantly, how he pushes her even when she is hesitant.
Once Loretta reaches stardom, Doo’s machismo rears its head even more. Whether it be telling Loretta not to wear makeup on stage or getting angered when another man teases him about his wife having a more prominent job than him, Doo’s irredeemable, violent qualities emerge, desperate to regain some control.
Lynn is still alive today and has written in her memoirs that he “was a good man and a hard worker.” She concedes that their marriage was "one of the hardest love stories,” but she nonetheless describes it as a love story. They never divorced and were married until his death.
Excuses were never made for Doo’s actions in the film. But because both parties were alive at the time of the film’s making, it’s understandable why his character was softened when he’s shown fathering his six children while Loretta tours. And in the screening, his lines got the most laughs. Tommy Lee Jones did a great job making Doo charismatic to the audience despite his attitude as a controlling spouse.
With domestic violence and large age gaps being taken more seriously today, it’s hard not to question whether Loretta and Doo made a mistake in staying together despite its consequences not being explored more within the scope of the film.
Perhaps that’s a good segue to talk about the actual themes the film set out to convey. Characterized at first as naive, Loretta often charms the viewer with how determined she is despite having to start from the very bottom. Encouraged by her husband, she marches right into Southern radio stations, telling the DJ why they should play her song right that moment.
The radio heads are skeptical at first. She’s a nobody from a small Appalachian town they’ve never heard of, and they dislike her “dumb hillbilly act.” Before her single charts nationally, most people stick their noses up at Loretta for her background. The film effectively highlights the bias and stereotyping that Appalachians face because of outsiders’ perception of them as uneducated and poverty-stricken. But when Loretta’s career takes off, it seems that the country music community welcomes her penchant for assertiveness and calling it how it is.
What differentiates this movie from other biopics about musicians is that, throughout the story, Loretta never seems larger than life – even at her peak. In films like Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and most recently Elvis, the protagonist seems to ascend personhood and becomes godlike via their talent or fame or wealth. So, Coal Miner’s Daughter feels like a breath of fresh air. The audience never loses sight that she’s a simple girl with a simple want: to sing and play her guitar for people who’ll listen. And I think that’s because Loretta didn’t lose sight of that either.
Coal Miner’s Daughter was a great kickoff for the Athena Cinema’s "From the Hills and Hollers," and I am highly anticipating what is yet to come. It doesn’t hurt that the next film is about the cryptid Mothman. October 13 at 7 p.m. I’ll see you there.
Learn more at athenacinema.com.