Context: A Late Developing Sub-Genre
With the decline of the classical song and dance musical in the 1960s the genre's most persistant mode of survival has been the biopic. This survival is, however, embodied less in accounts of the lives of the performers or composers of the traditional mainstream popular music of the US musical than of stars of alternative forms, such as Rock (in films like The Buddy Holly Story, 1978, and Oliver Stone's The Doors, 1992); Jazz (Lady Sings the Blues, 1978, and Clint Eastwood's Bird, 1988); and Country music (three major cinematic biopics - of Hank Williams, Your Cheatin' Heart (1964), of Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter, 1980, and of Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams, 1985 - and an independent film, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, 1981). These changes show how competing music styles fragmented the dominance of Broadway-centred popular music, and how the musical biopic has retained some prominence because of the wider biopic's continued popularity, reflecting Western culture's complex investment in ideologies of individuality. They also suggest that if popular desire for the musical endures, the biopic most easily satisfies it on several counts: built-in ideological appeal, realism in an age when the classical musical's fantasy elements signify unrecapturable optimism and, crucially, given the crippling expense of the last super-scale musicals of the 1970s, production numbers with minimal dancing and simple shooting of small ensembles.
To constitute a new source for biopics a musical form must shift from the margins to the centre of mass culture. Country music's move into the mainstream from its regional (Southern) and socio-economic (working-class) base, was signalled from the early 1940s by numerous 'crossover' Country hits, whether cover versions by non-Country singers of 'hardcore' songs (such as Tony Bennett's recording of Williams's 'Cold, Cold Heart'), or songs by singers with 'softshell' Country associations (Patti Page's 'The Tennessee Waltz'), or songs by major Country artists - like Cline - achieving success in the Pop charts.1 In the early 1950s MGM signed Williams to a contract, which included making a biopic, though nothing came of this. When the film came out in 1964, well after Williams's death, its shooting in monochrome indicated MGM's guardedness about a style of music still identified as 'hillbilly'.2 By the 1980s a complex combination of factors - changed demographies, the economic renaissance of the South, folk and 'rockabilly''s input into mainstream pop, together with the 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' attached to Country music that will be discussed below - constituted a wider, cross-regional, cross-class, even international audience for Country music and films based around its performers.
In the 1970s and in the 1980s, Country music increasingly featured on Hollywood film soundtracks, such as the use of 'Stand By Your Man' in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Narratives employed 'Country' milieu and stressed 'Country' over metropolitan values (as in Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose, 1980, and Any Which Way You Can, 1980, Honky Tonk Man, 1982, Tender Mercies, 1983, and Pure Country, 1992). Country performers such as Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton achieved super stardom. However, in the 1990s the musical biopic largely emigrated to television where the wider biopic genre proliferated energetically. Though it has been plausibly argued that made-for-television biopics exhibit less interest in stars than in 'ordinary people' suddenly elevated into fame, the musical biopic has flourished on television with filmic lives of such stars as Josephine Baker, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, Frank Sinatra and Liberace.3 Any taxonomy of the Country music sub-genre should therefore include four of these made-for-television films, centring on Tammy Wynette, Dottie West, Naomi and Wynonna Judd and John Denver - Stand By Your Man (1981), Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story (1994), Naomi and Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge (1995) and Take Me Home (1999), respectively. Despite encompassing harsher material than the classic 1940s Hollywood models, television biopics exhibit delimiting constraints such as television soap opera and tabloid news narrative conventions, the use of 'lookalike' actors rather than major stars, and cheapness and speed of shooting. Where living subjects are featured, their often heavy involvement with the projects means that hagiography can overcome the genre's apparent commitment to scandal. With the made-for-television musical biopic the cheapness of production numbers leads to a retreat from musical performance as a site of transcendence. Nevertheless, such narratives still depend on the powerful idea that Country music is the last repository of 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' in popular music, and figure here as important additions to the sub-genre, the taxonomy of which includes at its margins three 'rockabilly' biopics: The Buddy Holly Story, the film about Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls of Fire (1989), and the made-for-television biopic, Elvis (1979). Lastly, the whole sub-genre is shadowed by one of the great contemporary film musicals, Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), with its sardonic challenge to the central values of the Country ethos.
Emerging as late as 1964, the sub-genre of the Country music biopic incorporated the inflection of classic hagiographies such as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Night and Day (1946) into the more melodramatic and/or realistic forms exemplified by The Eddie Duchin Story (1956) and Love Me Or Leave Me (1955).4 The Country music biopic, with its typical focus on rural poverty, its authenticity derived from suffering, its presentation of heterosexual relations as central but often difficult and violent, its protagonists' tendency to an incapacity for dealing with success, and their propensity for early deaths, is linked to the wider demystifying history of the biopic. Also it emerged in a period when 'women's issues' were increasingly highlighted in film and television, and the female protagonists who feature in five of the seven films explored here reflect this, as well as the growing number of female Country singing stars. Such emphases are observable in the mother-daughter relationship in the Judds' biopic, in the involvement of all the heroines with both careers and motherhood, and the incipient and erratic feminism of Lynn and West in Coal Miner's Daughter and Big Dreams and Broken Hearts, respectively. Formally, however, the Country music biopic's narratives are conservative, less inventive than a high-art music biopic like 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), than Stone's The Doors with its drug fantasy numbers, than Eastwood's Bird, or Paul Schrader's unmade Hank Williams project, which was to have escaped the biopic's chronological tyranny by its division into six moments in its subject's life.5 Perhaps the sub-genre's single formal innovation - shared with other contemporary musical biopics - is a shortening and fragmentation of performance numbers, which often metamorphose, after stage-based beginnings, into extra-diegetic music to montage sequences, paralleling the use of songs as background to sequences in many contemporary Hollywood narratives. Beyond the economic factors, this can be understood as a way of overcoming one of the problems of the musical biopic - the relative poverty of options for staging performance numbers. However, here the technique works to consolidate the relationship between art and life, important in all musical biopics, but perhaps most of all in those with a Country focus.
'Sincerity', 'Authenticity', 'Crossover' In a much-quoted statement, Hank Williams claimed that
Country Music can be explained in just one word: sincerity. When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings 'I laid my Mother away', he sees her alaying right there in the coffin. He sings more sincere than most entertainers. You got to know about hard work. You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing hillbilly. 6
That Williams was speaking to Nation's Business sharply registers the paradox that a form of music deeply integrated into the commodification of entertainment simultaneously claims - to use Lionel Trilling's definition of 'sincerity' -a 'congruence between avowal and actual feeling' thought impossible within the popular music industry.7 Williams's statement, echoed endlessly by other performers, fans, and audiences, encapsulates the fundamental belief of Country music. More deconstructive approaches have analysed the music's 'fabrication of authenticity',8 but the use of the term 'authenticity' here both evokes memories of a less commodified communal art, and what Trilling defines as 'a more exigent conception of the self and what being true to it consists in than sincerity does'.9 It is unprovable that 'hardcore' Country performers have a different relation to 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' in their performances from urbane singers such as Frank Sinatra, but it is often felt that they do: and it is a mark of the believer in Country music's 'difference' to feel such a relationship. A more guarded formulation would be that this is acted out in a circle of agreement made up of performer, audience and critics. For example, in the finale of the film Stand By Your Man, when Annette O'Toole as Tammy Wynette sings the famous title song, she apologises for the discrepancy between its sentiments and her divorces, by telling her audience that the song expresses a conviction she still subscribes to, 'at least I believe it's the way it should be'. It is difficult to imagine other kinds of singers doing this - Sinatra, say, preambling 'Our Love is Here to Stay' with a discussion of his divorces. Only Country singers, and Blues singers, are believed to have such a transparent relationship with their material.
However, the Country singer as biopic legend is necessarily a performer who has 'crossed over' from harder core styles to those acceptable to a mass audience. Here complications arise, since, as insertion into the commodification process of the recording industry is usually dramatised as part of the films' success-narratives, 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' are endangered. All the films discussed here inescapably deal with this problem of 'crossover'. Sweet Dreams partly solves it by emphasising the late 1950s as a time when many kinds of music became popular. When Patsy (Jessica Lange) and Charlie (Ed Harris)
date, his car radio plays Sinatra's 'Young at Heart', followed by the soul singer, Sam Cooke's 'You Send Me', to which they dance outside the Rainbow club. Earlier they had jived to Gene Vincent's 'Be Bop a Lula', and later they dance again outside the Rainbow to Acker Bilk's jazz-pop instrumental, 'Stranger on the Shore'. After Patsy's death when, in Charlie's fantasy, they dance there again to her song 'Crazy', the implication is that Country music has become as culturally central as the other genres. In Naomi and Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge, something similar happens when Wynonna sings Joni Mitchell's 'Clouds' and 'Don't Be Cruel', and Naomi hears a streetsinger's version of Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind', moments demonstrating the compatability of 'rockabilly' and 'urban folk' with traditional but evolving Country music. Elsewhere, explicit statements may be made, as when the producer Randy Hughes, pushing the heroine towards pop balladry, calls Patsy's honkytonk songs 'yodellin' and growlin' (a view that the audience is surely meant to see as partial), and in Your Cheatin' Heart's extended debates about who constitutes Hank Williams's audience. It is only in Take Me Home, in which Chad Lowe's John Denver has 'crossed over' so far that his relation to 'hardcore' country -symbolised by his identification with Colorado rather than the South - is radically diminished, that there is no real tension. We should see, then, these biopics as structured both by movements towards 'crossover' (justified as preserving 'oldtime music' in the modern world, but threatening authenticity) and by conservative markers that prohibit the spectre of inauthenticity. The following is a brief consideration of the most important areas in which such markers function across the sub-genre.
'Hardcore' Not 'Soft Shell'
This terminology is applied by Richard A. Peterson. To be accepted by core audiences as authentically Country, the artist needs certain markers to indicate 'hardcore' status - the most important of these are regional affiliation, association with the country rather than the city, origins in poverty, lack of education, 'southern' speech and dress, particular musical and performing styles derived from within the country tradition rather than from outside it and songs with 'autobiographical' connotations that suggest the performer's lived experience. That these signifiers are heavily inscribed across Country biopics is clear, but the process is particularly revealing where key elements seem to be lacking. If Denver is counted as an anomaly - the film about him being a non-condemnatory (though occasionally ironic) account of a wholly 'softshell' singer - the Judds' biopic is the most interesting, especially given its framing device of an extravagant rock-style concert that might well suggest the duo's distance from their origins. However, this final concert balances its terpsi-chorean rock-performance style with tradition-alluding songs like 'Grandpa,
Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days', Naomi's seemingly lower middle-class upbringing is compensated for by her fall into poverty as a single mother, and though she spends time in California, the film ends with the family living in rural Tennessee. The influence of rock in the film is also tempered by traditional elements such as the recording by the influential duo, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, of 'The Sweetest Gift', the record that Naomi buys Wynonna, which reaches back, through the female artists with their special relevance for mother and daughter, to the archetypal close harmony duo of the Blue Sky Boys.10
Disorder, Early Sorrow, Premature Death
Initial poverty (with fathers often absent) defines the lives of some of the most 'authentic' Country performers, who tend also to be marked by the traumas of alcoholism and divorce and lifestyles of excessive sexual and material indulgence. Such tragedy becomes itself a marker of authenticity - life lived at an intensity different from bourgeois norms. The stars also tend to live out and articulate the contradictions of their peer-audience (for instance, Jessica Lange's wonderful embodiment of Patsy Cline's contradictory desires for domesticity and instability), but what binds them so intimately to their auditors can also destroy them. Williams, Cline and West all died prematurely, the last two in accidents, but the crashes are offered as the logical resolution to turbulent lives. (With Denver, whose problems are the career-marriage difficulties of traditional musical biopics uninflected by Country elements, his early death registers simply as a cruel accident.) Where the protagonists survive (Lynn, Wynette, the Judds) they bear the survivor's marks of their experience, further authenticating their art as digging deeper than much popular culture.
Audiences, Internal and External
The Country music biopic represents the Country performer's 'special relationship' with his or her audience, at least to the degree that the star, however successful as a recording artist, stays on the road giving live concerts, as when Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline duet 'Back in Baby's Arms Again' at a small fair in Connecticut in Coal Miner's Daughter. In such sequences the camerawork also declares that Country music audiences are different from others as it shows an extended community, or even a hugely extended family, middle-aged, old and young. In contrast, in The Buddy Holly Story, in which a new form of music is validated at the expense of traditional Country styles, Holly's performance at an ice rink splits the young rock 'n' roll audience from their elders. The audience that the camera pans across in Coal Miner's Daughter, and which is parallelled in other Country music biopics, reminds the viewer of the primary audiences for whom the protagonists play in their local medicine show, church
Figure 5 The broken performer: Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek)'s breakdown on stage in Coal Miner's Daughter is linked to her loss of relationship to the Country music community.
fair, dance hall or amateur talent show beginnings, and beyond that of the audience of family, friends and neighbours for whom Naomi and Wynonna first perform 'The Sweetest Gift'. The audience shown at the Country singer's professional performances is thus presented as an extension of the family, community and region with which the performer seeks constant interaction, and into which the wider audience for Country music, feeling the loss of such community, taps affirmatively. Hence the trauma if this relationship is ruptured, as it is, for instance, when Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter suffers a breakdown on stage, babbling incomprehensibly to an audience that seems notably lacking in empathy - a scene from Lynn's real life that was wickedly parodied in Barbara Jean's on-stage collapse in Nashville.
Where the protagonists of other musical biopics claim to break with convention, the Country artist joins a tradition in which innovation is most often the rediscovery of older values. There are three ways in which this is typically dramatised. First, the protagonist is embraced by the tradition, as when the veteran singer Ernest Tubb (playing himself) introduces Lynn at the Grand Ol' Opry, or when Cline admires Lynn's recording of her own song, 'Walkin' after Midnight'. Secondly, there is radio, the medium through which, almost invariably, the young protagonist first experiences the Country tradition. In this trope, commercial radio is pastoralised into the voice of community, as in Coal Miner's Daughter in which the impoverished family listens, in a poignant scene, to live performances broadcast from the Opry. Thirdly, reflecting the historical displacement of live performance on radio by the broadcasting of recordings, the contact with the tradition is often made through broadcast records, as when Wynette at the opening of Stand By Your Man listens to George Jones's 'White Lightnin''. The sense that the recording is an alienation of live performance is countered by Country's commitment to the personal. The latter overpowers the former when they are intertwined in various conceits, as with Lynn's inability to make her first recording until her babies are set in front of her, and Naomi's and Wynonna's insistence on doing a demonstration recording as a live duet, not as remixed solo tracks. The recording becomes the repository of living tradition itself, as Naomi gives her daughter a record of 'The Sweetest Gift', and the posthumous playing of 'Crazy' in Sweet Dreams seems to ask how else but on record could we still hear Patsy Cline?
Country music biopics further demonstrate their subjects' authenticity with the meaningful use of Gospel music and the Blues. The films' many allusions to church music emphasise the spiritual and communal elements of the Country ethos, while references to the Blues play on the authenticity granted to that mode and suggests a kinship between it and the 'White Blues' (a name sometimes given to Country music), invoking parallels of deprivation, suffering and artistic sublimation usually obscured by racial difference. In the first case representative examples are the communal singing of 'Amazing Grace' at Loretta's father's wake in Coal Miner's Daughter, and the performance of 'He Walks With Me' in the Judds' biopic, underlining those elements of suffering and religious hope that are a strong part of Country music. As the sardonic emphasis on the Sunday church services - both black and white - in Nashville suggests, this religious ethos is another, often unrecognised parallel, between black and white 'Southern' music. A black presence in the Country biopics is less usual, but is highly worked in Your Cheatin' Heart, in which the influence of Williams's black childhood mentor, 'Teetot' (the itinerant musician Rufus Payne), is forcefully dramatised. Two of the 'rockabilly' films, The Buddy Holly Story and Great Balls of Fire, link their heroes explicitly to black musical roots, but both films do this at the cost of denying their protagonists' Country origins, which they are shown as abandoning for the newer mode of rock. In fact, Lewis returned to Country music, while Holly's style was always as much Country as Rhythm and Blues, so that both films' apparent surface rejection of Country projects is contradicted through song style.
In the Elvis Presley documentary, Elvis: That's the Way it Is (1970) there are moments when the King and his troupe relax backstage, looking genuinely happy amidst all the hype, singing their Southern Gospel heritage. A similar idea of the commercial musician fundamentally playing for love is suggested in the country biopics, importantly modifying the drama of material success, and this trope is exemplarily acted out in Sweet Dreams. In a key scene, the band sprawl exhaustedly backstage, joking about their tiredness. One starts casually to sing 'Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms' and the others join in non-hierarchically, with the star, Cline, in a subsidiary role. No audience, no payment and the song with its multiple variants constituting a microcosm of tradition.11
The sexual ethos of Country music is conservative. Even where there is a critique of gender relations - as in Lynn's proto-feminist songs - it is protest in the context of necessary heterosexual relationships, and sexual ambiguity comes no closer than Charlie's threat in Sweet Dreams to declare himself 'a homo' in order to evade military service. On the one hand, this is presented as a pastoral quality, which is an enviable departure from urban gender confusion. On the other, though, these deeply held identities promote tension as the violent instability of the 'ramblin' man' conflicts with the female star's desire for domesticity (Cline's 'house with yellow roses'), rendering sexual relationships tumultuously precarious. Sexual need is accompanied by sexual antagonism, as in Patsy's mother's schooldays confession of sticking a pen into a boy's genitals. If the traditional roles are reversed and the woman is the star, then the men are likely to feel emasculated. Ironically, the women are incorrigibly attracted to 'ramblin' man' figures like Doo (Tommy Lee Jones) in Coal Miner's Daughter, Charlie Dick - whose surname symbolises his phallic assertiveness - in Sweet Dreams and George Jones in Stand By Your Man, with whom sustained relationships are almost impossible (though Doo, in marked contrast to Charlie, manages to convert his wildness into domesticity). Both male and female characters, while finding self definition in extremes of masculinity and femininity, are fractured by further contradictions; the women acquire an economic power traditionally associated with masculinity while simultaneously demanding both subordination and aggression from their men, with the latter torn between need of, and an often violent flight from, domesticity, exhibiting masochistic passivity, alcoholism and disintegration. In Big Dreams, for example, traumatised by an abusive father and poverty, Dottie West exhibits a multitude of distorted ultra-masculine as well as ultra-feminine traits. This is at once torment and an occasion for critique, but also a type of authenticity, offering sexuality as tragic Opry melody rather than the optimistic tune of most popular music.
Altman's film Nashville famously assaulted the mythos of Country music to reveal its commercialism, inauthenticity, right-wing populism and ersatz sentiment - a crushing indictment that also exposes all the biopics dealt with here. Yet, for all its force, Nashville's assault is only meaningful because of the survival, however compromised, of belief in the authenticity of the best Country music. Furthermore, Nashville, consciously or unconsciously, cannot but allude to the values of Country music even as it satirises them. Take the extreme example of Haven Hamilton's oleaginously insincere number 'For the Sake of the Children', in which a father tells his girlfriend the 'three reasons why' she must 'unpack [her] bags, and try not to cry' - his three children, glutinously eulogised. One could wince at the lyrics, but should do so less, I suggest, than may at first appear, since within the burlesque there are traceable elements of a song which deals - unoccluded by cynicism, euphemism, or irony - with a narrative of broken love, duty and desire, pain and renunciation, those ur-Country structures of feeling that are powerfully restaged even in made-for-television biopics.
Singing a Life: Title Songs Performed
Tammy: Do you know 'Your Cheatin' Heart'?
Musician: 'Honey, we live it every day'.12
In the independent Canadian film, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, the star is imagined extending the Country performer's rapport with his audience into an explicit statement of his song's autobiographical sources.13 If, as he and his audience believe, Country music is a form of autobiography, it is unsurprising that five of the seven biopics discussed here are titled after their subjects' most famous songs, which, as synecdoches for their lives and art, are given a privileged place. Indeed in the Lynn, Cline and Wynette films, they become the culminating performances. Such a conflation - an obviously tempting strategy for popular artistic biography - is not restricted to the Country music biopic, but the trope's pre-eminence in this form of the sub-genre is very striking. Three such numbers are used here to explore moments of performance: George Hamilton's acting (with Hank Williams Junior's singing) of Hank Williams's 'Your Cheatin' Heart', Sissy Spacek's acting and singing of Loretta Lynn's 'Coal Miner's Daughter' and Jessica Lange's acting and miming (to Cline's own recording) of Patsy Cline's 'Sweet Dreams'.
Unlike the two songs in the other films, 'Your Cheatin' Heart' is sung halfway through the biopic, not at its end, a finale which stages both Williams's nonprofessional performance in a local store and the audience at the auditorium spontaneously singing his gospel number 'I Saw the Light' after his death has been announced. This double finale asserts Williams's meaning to both his original and wider audiences, though in ways still dominated by hagiography, since in the scene in the store Williams (an unreformed alcoholic) implausibly refuses drinks, while factual accounts of the death announcement note that the 'spontaneous' singing was stage-led, and that some present laughed at the announcement, thinking that it was a joke in bad taste excusing another drunken non-appearance.14 Typically, the earlier performance of 'Your Cheatin' Heart' comes after narrative material which links the song to Williams's life. Unable to deal with the contradictions of his fame, he arrives at the theatre late and drunk, and watches unseen the cancellation of his concert; but, recognised by the audience, he is cheered to the stage. There he jokes about his alcoholism and his wife - topics which emphasise his status as the articulator of his audience's tensions and desires - before singing the song. Typical of the sub-genre, the number is performed and shot simply. Williams, in a relatively restrained Nudie Cohen designed suit (a glitzed-up version of a Southern working-man's Sunday best), appears in medium shot with the band and in close-up alone, images that are combined with shots of the audience and of his wife, Audrey, watching from the wings.15 This simplicity foregrounds Williams's face, the song's lyrics and the music as well as the significance of Audrey, about and to whom the song is being sung.
Beginning with a laconic comment to the band - ' "Cheatin' Heart", boys' -Williams retreats to allow his guitarist a brief opening solo, a reminder of the communality of the Country tradition. Williams then moves forward and sings with restrained bodily gestures, little ducks towards the mike, a canter backwards, a buckling at the knees. Like other Country singers, his facial expressions convey checked emotion, occasional strain in reaching the male singer's 'high lonesome' sound and intimations of emotional intensity through the brief closing of his eyes. Williams's actual recorded performance, nasal and hooting against a piercingly whining steel guitar, teeters stoically on the abyss of tears invoked by 'Cheatin' Heart's lyrics - 'crave your love', 'make you weep', 'tears come down like fallin' rain' - which are only fragilely covered by the lyrics' attempts to deflect the narrator's grief into a fantasy of future payback for the cheat. The film does not use Williams's own vocals, but appears to do the next best thing by employing his son, Hank Williams Junior. Despite the fact that the latter's singing is a relatively authentic imitation, the softened musical arrangement, including pop-styled background vocals, makes the number the most musically altered of the three considered here. Although George Hamilton manages a strong embodiment of Williams's man-child aspects, 'Sneezy' Waters's impersonation in Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, manages to catch more of the star's contradictions: his 'Luke the Drifter' religious monologues that spiral down from sentimentality into nihilism and his unstable combination of macho assertiveness and feminised suffering, religion and hedonism.
Like Sweet Dreams, Coal Miner's Daughter closes with the title number. In this case, the song restates for a last time the narrative's dual trajectory: Lynn's rise from poverty to success and the doubling back in which her art affirms the continuity of her origins. This is the most self-consciously referential of the three songs, its lyrics explicitly meditating on the meanings of Lynn's art and of Country music itself. The number has further narrative significance as the moment of Lynn's comeback after her breakdown. As such, it rearticulates her bond with her audience, a bond which had disintegrated in periods of panic as, for instance, when a female fan had torn at her hair.
The large-scale success of both the song and the film is grounded in an enactment of the 'American Dream' journey from poverty to success. But this journey is not a simple cancelling of the past. Lynn's progress, escaping from, but also preserving, her roots, reworks not just the material aspirations of the USA in general but its nostalgia for pure origins in the agrarian republic. The film's recalling of this pastorale is impressively bleak, for unlike West's arcadia of country girls, green grass and sunshine, Butcher Holler (Lynn's home town) is a pastorale of Wordsworthian harshness, a puritan realm of virtuous poverty amid exploitation and violence, with 'Daddy' working all night in the mine, all day in the fields, and 'Mommy' scrubbing until her fingers bleed, all intensely depicted in the film's use of impoverished winter light. The song's simple Christianity, with its family centredness and emphasis on work and sacrifice, is especially powerful in a time of perceived moral relativism and confusion, but is also harsh enough to make affirmations ambivalent. Butcher Holler, commemorated in spirit, is pragmatically escaped. Loretta is proud to be a coal miner's daughter, but she would not be equally happy to be a coal miner's wife or mother.
There are further ambivalences. In this performance a Country band is abetted by big acoustics and a wordless Nashville chorus, while Spacek's close imitation of Lynn's voice, though full of Country markers, is less 'hardcore' than Williams's. As Lynn's fame grows throughout the narrative, Spacek's costume transforms from that of a country waif or cowgirl to ringleted Southern belle in full-length white gown, mediating images of poverty with an antebellum gra-ciousness. This points, via the historical allusion, to the ascendant South of the 'sunbelt boom' of the 1970s and 1980s whose regained prestige helped the mainstream popularity of Southern music. Some gestures mediate not just between two images of the South, but of femininity. Coming onstage, Spacek lifts the front of her gown in ladylike fashion, but then holds the cord of her handmike like a lariat. Aureoled by photographers' flashlights, the star binds past and present, poverty and wealth and country and city. Filmed restrainedly, the number is divided between shots of the performer (in long-shot and close-up), her audience and her husband Doo. Closing, the number moves into over-voice to images from Loretta's past, changing then to a medley of her other famous numbers. The final image is of the old family house. Shown here as sturdily intact, it suggests an enduring foundation.
Unlike Lynn and Williams, Cline was no songwriter, but a 'vocal auteur' metamorphosing songs by others into personal statements. A moment in Sweet Dreams enacts this when Cline resists recording Willie Nelson's song 'Crazy', but is then persuaded to make it hers - 'Just like you always do it, your way'. The film's climactic performance of 'Sweet Dreams', a song only released after her death, contains heightened autobiographical connotations from being read as a kind of last testament. The sense of it relating intimately to her life is underwritten by the preceding moment in a recording studio where she tells Charlie she cannot answer the question of whether she will take him back. As Cline gestures wearily, the number's introductory string cascade plays over her image.
'Sweet Dreams', like 'Your Cheatin' Heart', is a paradigm of the 'hurting' aspects of Country music, embracing loss more deeply than any other popular music except the Blues. Lynn's song transforms past tribulation into national example, but 'Sweet Dreams' luxuriates in unappeasable loss, spiralling down obsessionally to an unmendable past: 'Why can't I forget you and start my life anew / Instead of having sweet dreams about you?' The apotheosis of loss, the number is also Cline's apotheosis as the 'Goddess of Crossover'. She appears as a white-gowned icon, performing with a quasi-symphonic orchestra banked up behind her against a stage décor of red and black, which plays in its opening string cascade sounds never heard by any Rose of San Antone. All this contrasts with her earlier costumes, such as the blue-and-white checked shirt, golden bomber jacket, pale blue neckband and sky blue skintight trousers she wears to sing 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' at the stock car derby, or the red-and-yellow cowgirl outfit in which she sings the same song at the film's beginning. Underneath a carefully made-over hairstyle, makeup covers the bruising round her eye which was evident in the scene before, and her sequinned gown and glittering earrings render her ethereal, although Jessica Lange retains even here vestiges of big-boned rawness. Like Lynn, but unlike Williams, Cline has abandoned her guitar, and even the handmike that Lynn carries, and stands alone now like a diva. Glorifying her metamorphosis, the number, however, retains hardcore characteristics amid the softshell, with Country vocal
Figure 6 Prior to her transformation into a mainstream star, Patsy Cline (Jessica Lange)'s cowgirl costume codes her as a Country performer in Sweet Dreams.
markers deeply embedded in the catches in her throat, the swoops in register, and her 'masculine' forcefulness even in a slow ballad. These are matched by gestures crossing her new status and her old. While some are near operatic, as when she stretches arms out to the side, palms outward, others anchor her more earthily as she runs her hands down her thighs, and sways restrainedly, as if caught up in the honky tonk reminiscences of the piano within the string orchestration. As she finishes, the audience is seen to rise, applauding, standing against the auditorium's church-like stained glass windows - a rare allusion to religion in a very secular film, which also echoes the Carnegie Hall finale of some earlier popular music biopics.16 But such allusions are counterpointed by Cline's casual waves to the audience and her 'Tha' Yew', which suggest the essential Country performer. And, leaving the stage, she passes a traditionally dressed Country band, a brief intersection that reminds us not only of what has been lost in her ascent, but also of essential links retained.
1. The terms 'hardcore' and 'softshell' are used by Richard A. Peterson to describe the range of Country music in his book, Creating Country Music: The Fabrication of Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 150-5.
2. Williams died on New Year's Day, 1953, aged 29.
3. George F. Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Conceived Public History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992): 216-23.
4. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of George M. Cohan, Night and Day is a biopic of Cole Porter and Love Me Or Leave Me is a biopic of Ruth Etting.
5. Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader (London: Faber & Faber, 1990): 127.
6. Quoted in Roger M. Williams, Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1981): 107.
7. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972): 2.
8. See Peterson: passim.
10. Reprised on The Blue Sky Boys in Concert, 1964 (Rounders CD 11536).
11. On 'Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms' see Nick Tosches, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music (New York: Scribner's, 1985): 200-1.
12. Dialogue in Stand By Your Man (1981).
13. Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (Drifter Film Productions, directed by David Acomba: White Star Video, 1644).
14. See George William Koan, Hank Williams: A Bio-Bibliography (Connecticut: Westport, 1983): 52.
15. Nudie Cohen was a well-known designer of stage outfits for Country performers.
16. See the Allen Reisner directed biopic of W.C. Handy, St. Louis Blues (1958).
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