Friday, December 11, 2015

Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (Warner Bros. Television, DP Productions, Magnolia Hill Productions, NBC, December 10, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that NBC aired what was officially called Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, a TV-movie that was billed as a biopic of Dolly Parton inspired by her 1971 hit of the same title. The “Coat of Many Colors” was not only a reference to the Old Testament Joseph and what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first librettist, Tim Rice, called his “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” but also to a coat Dolly Parton’s mother sewed for her when she was a girl, made out of scraps she’d originally collected for a quilt that never got used as such because it was for a brother whom Mrs. Parton miscarried. According to the song, Dolly originally thought the coat was silly — especially when she went to school wearing it and was mocked by the other kids — but realized later that it was the most beautiful garment she’d ever owned because it had embodied her mother’s love for her. As a three-minute song this is an incredibly beautiful and moving tale; as a 120-minute TV movie it’s a trial. Frankly, I had expected Coal Miner’s Daughter and I ended up getting The Waltons; the story never depicts Parton as an adult (though Parton appears as herself in the opening and closing segments, singing a bit of the song and introducing the story — she also narrates at intervals throughout) and never gets out of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where Dolly Parton grew up, daughter of a tobacco farmer (though it’s not until 35 minutes into the film that we’re finally told what he does for a living) named Robert Lee Parton (Ricky Schroder) — and you don’t need two guesses who his parents named him after!— and a preacher’s daughter named Avie Lee Owens Parton (Jennifer Nettles) whose father, Rev. Jake Owens (Gerald McRaney), runs the local church. Robert Lee Parton makes a point of driving Dolly and his other seven children (Parker Sack, the actor playing his oldest son, David, looked so much like the young Ricky Schroder Charles wondered if he were Schroder’s real-life son) to the church every Sunday (the story takes place in 1955) but would always stand outside the doorway and never enter the service.

The plot deals with the tragic death of the son, whom they’d already named Larry even though in 1955 you couldn’t even know what sex your baby would be until it was born, the Partons were expecting, and mom’s descent into depression and what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder, which among other things led her to stop having sex with her husband. That in turn led to him moving into the barn and sleeping there. There’s also the story of the Coat of Many Colors — not Joseph’s, Dolly’s, though given that her granddad is the local minister it’s not surprising that both she and her mom make the inevitable analogy. And there’s an exciting sequence in which the Partons all have to go into the tobacco field and save their crop from worms, on top of which it’s supposed to be the rainy season but no rains materialize, and if they don’t come soon the tops of the tobacco leaves will wilt and their crop will be useless even if the worms don’t get it. On its own terms Coat of Many Colors is a nicely acted (Alyvia Alyn Lynd, who played the girl Dolly, had a quite good voice as well as a feisty manner that worked for the role), well staged movie — screenwriter Pamela K. Long knew her job was going to be to grab the audience’s heartstrings and keep tugging away at them for 120 minutes of screen time (less commercials, which were more jarring here than usual in TV movies), and director Stephen Herek and cinematographer Brian J. Reynolds did their jobs well enough even though they bathed the entire film in a rich autumnal glow that had a sort of Hallmark Cards air about it no matter what season the events of the story were taking place in. It’s just that the relentless tearjerkiness of it got to me, besides which I was far more interested in seeing how Dolly Parton got off that damned mountain and achieved fame and fortune in Nashville than living through all the horrible but heartwarming things that happened to her there.