Three decades after its release, Coal Miner’s Daughter is widely hailed as an American classic and remembered as the film that earned Sissy Spacek a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of country music icon Loretta Lynn.
But when the film was being made in 1979 there was no guarantee that the movie would be a success either commercially or artistically. In fact, there were rumblings that it might be a big fat mess.
For starters, it was a story set in the world of American country music being directed by... an Englishman?
And then there was its leading lady, Sissy Spacek, who was so reluctant to get involved she practically had to be kidnapped ... and then insisted on singing in her own voice rather than lip sync to Lynn’s famous recordings.
Lynn’s 1976 autobiography – a huge best seller – chronicled her impoverished childhood in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and her marriage at 15 to good ol’ boy Mooney Lynn. By the time she was 19 Lynn was the mother of four. By age 29 she was a grandma.
Yet somehow she discovered her talent for songwriting and performing and, thanks in large part to Moonie’s tireless promotion, became the Queen of Country Music. In fact, in 1980 Loretta Lynn was the most famous country musician since Hank Williams.
Universal Pictures jumped on the book shortly after it was published, but the studio never really had much faith in the project. After all ... a country music bio? With no violence? No crime? (Well, a little moonshining.)
The suits came up with a modest $6 million budget. Their idea was that they would make their profit through a soundtrack album that would be snapped up by all of Loretta Lynn’s fans. The movie was an afterthought.
In fact, the studio’s relative indifference turned out to be a blessing. Instead of an established American director, they were happy to settle for a reasonably priced no-name Brit named Michael Apted.
Though Apted had made a couple of features – 1974’s Stardust, a cult classic with real-life pop star David Essex as a rising rocker, and 1979’s Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave portraying mystery writer Agatha Christie.
“I got it by chance,” Apted recalls. “The studio never saw it as a big commercial film. I didn’t have any baggage. I didn’t know anything about country music or Loretta Lynn. Never heard of Appalachian white trash...”
But Apted turned out to be an inspired pick because of his background in documentaries. He already had taken over the reins of the 7 Up documentary series which to this day revisits the same group of British school children every seven years (the latest, 56 Up – the children are now 56 years old – recently played Kansas City).
The result was that he approached Thomas Rickman’s screenplay with no preconceptions and a willingness to learn from the genuine hill people he encountered while filming on location.
Here’s one reason for the total believability of the lives portrayed in Coal Miner’s Daughter: With the exception of the lead performances, the film was cast almost entirely with local people who brought a totally authentic sense of naturalism. Nothing about the film feels phony.
The casting of Spacek was another adventure. Before Coal Miner’s Daughter, Spacek had only a handful of film credits. She first appeared in 1972’s Prime Cut (filmed in part in Kansas City and Lawrence), a crime potboiler in which she played a sex slave.
During the Seventies she had appeared as a teenage lover/killer on the run in Terrence Malick’s memorable Badlands and was one of the leads in Robert Altman’s offbeat 3 Women. She became a household name (and earned her first Oscar nomination) with the supernatural thriller Carrie.
It was Loretta Lynn who demanded that Spacek play her in the movie. Ironically, Lynn had never seen Spacek act. She had only seen the actress’s photograph and declared that this was the one. She even appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to prematurely declare that “Sissy Spacek is going to play me."
Spacek wasn’t sure she was up to it. Her upbringing in northeast Texas left her with an affinity for Southern life (she still speaks with a twang) but portraying a well-known public figure from age 15 to 45 sounded daunting.
Hoping to throw a monkey wrench into the works, the actress demanded that she be allowed to sing Lynn’s songs in the film.
“I figured they’ll say no and I’ll be out of it. Low and behold, they said, OK. And I’m wondering, ‘What do I do now?’”
In the end Spacek was torn between Coal Miner’s Daughter and a film by Australian director Nicolas Roeg. She and her husband went for a drive to help her make up her mind. The first song to come out of the car radio was “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The universe had spoken.
Spacek trained with Owen Bradley, legendary producer of both Loretta and Patsy Cline (played in the film by Beverly D’Angelo). Apted demanded that the musical numbers be recorded live, as had been the case in the recent release The Buddy Holly Story.
The result is one of the best music biographies ever. Coal Miner’s Daughter won the Oscar for Spacek and was nominated for picture, screenplay, editing, art direction, cinematography, and sound.
Other films in the series “Hollywood's Music”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 1: 8 Mile (2002) Rated R
- April 8: Mo' Better Blues (1990) Rated R
- April 15: Cadillac Records (2008) Rated R
- April 22: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Rated PG
- April 29: The Mambo Kings (1992) Rated R
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 6: Leadbelly (1976) Rated PG
- April 13: A Great Day In Harlem (1994) Not Rated
- April 20: American Graffiti (1973) Rated PG
- April 27: Every Little Step (2008) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements the six-week program America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.