From HBO Pictures/Tri Star
Directed by Karel Reisz
I will lead my charge here by saying that I am an enormous fan of the film biography, particularly of someone musical... I mean as in singing or dancing or playing an instrument. Admittedly this has not always been a well-done genre but it has long attracted my attention.
Some of my favorite musical bios go back to the corny stuff (certainly by today's standards) of the 1940s and 50s. I can close my pretty blues and see Alice Faye strutting her wares as Lillian Russell and Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller and Cary Grant as Cole Porter and Betty Grable and June Haver as the Dolly Sisters. The fact is that why so much of that is considered fairly lightweight fare is because they focus on the musical numbers and more or less throw away the dramatic part of the story, which was often highly fictionalized. It's not that I didn't like what I've described. I loved it.
Film biographies of musical stars these days provide us with more than a glance into personal lives and is usually the case, there is generally something dramatic to tell us. The musical highlights are still highly entertaining but the story takes no backseat. I like this too.
That brings us to Sweet Dreams. I think it is the best musical biography of them all. Maybe to appear fair-minded, I should add the adverb arguably to the sentence, but I guess I think there should be no argument. All said, there are certainly other wonderful musical biographies that have been done in the last 30-40 years. The one thing the others don't have, however, is Jessica Lange.
I was pretty crazy about Patsy Cline. I never saw her famous turn on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a popular television show of the time which shot her to national fame, but I clearly remember seeing her on American Bandstand. As a teenager I owned most of her 45 rpm records.
|The real Patsy shortly before her death|
Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia, the oldest of three children, and the apple of her mother's eye. They were only 16 years apart in age and were always very close. She started singing while married to an older name, Gerald Cline. Toward the end of that unhappy union she met a handsome ladies' man, Charlie Dick, who came to see her in some of the local honkytonks where she entertained. They were soon married. While she always claimed he was the love of her life, he is reported to have physically abused her and cheated on her. Dick claimed Sweet Dreams was a good movie if you like fiction. From all I can tell in documentaries and books I have read on her life, the film pretty much nailed down the truth.
After a bad beating she separated from Dick, who went to jail, and they were still apart when she died.
Her fame lasted around 10 years but she seems to be as renowned today and all the years since her 1963 death as she was in her short lifetime. She had sung her heart out at benefits, in local saloons and on television before making it big with her recording of I Fall to Pieces. The film features, of course, many of her popular songs including San Antonio Rose, Blue Moon of Kentucky, I Cried for You, Lovesick Blues, She's Got You, Seven Lonely Days,
Your Cheatin' Heart and Walkin' After Midnight.
Her fortunes changed when she contacted Randy Hughes, who became her manager. He was wild about her singing but felt that her husky, rich, emotional, contralto voice was more suited to love songs. He wanted her to slow it all down and sing ballads. She fought him on this point but eventually conceded and her career shot into the stratosphere.
When she and Hughes hooked up with country music producer Owen Bradley, already known for his touch with country songbirds, history was further made when she recorded Crazy, a song written and previously recorded by Willie Nelson. She argued she could do no justice to the song. She didn't wanted to record it but was encouraged to sing it her way. Once she did, it became a giant of a hit and her signature song. And she became what no other female country artist had accomplished up to that time... a crossover artist. At the same time she was in a life-threatening car accident, vividly depicted in the film.
On March 5, 1963, she, Hughes and two others were in a four-seater plane piloted by Hughes in bad weather over Tennessee when their plane crashed into a mountain. All were killed instantly. While we will never know the conversation in that plane, the film does a good job of filling in the blanks.
To this day I remember where I was when I heard about her death but I first recall hearing that she was missing. Never being much of a country music fan, it was that crossover into pop music that caught my attention and I was enormously saddened by her death and the many new songs I would never hear from her.
It was somewhat surprising that this film was ever made, chiefly because only a few years earlier we were treated to a similar film about a country songbird, Coal Miner's Daughter, about Cline's friend Loretta Lynn. It won Sissy Spacek a well-deserved Oscar. Beverly D'Angelo briefly played Cline in that film. Perhaps Sweet Dreams got the green light because of Cline's enormous fame and music but also because her personal life was dramatically suited for a film treatment.
What makes this film an important one is the luminous presence of Jessica Lange. She knocked us out as Cline. They looked nothing alike. Lange was blonde and thin while Cline was a brunette and a bit more on the zaftig side. But Lange never missed a beat and all her studying of her subject, the reading, pouring over documents, watching her recorded performances, allowed her to nail down those physical mannerisms and emotional scenes. It has been said Patsy Cline was one of the kindest performers but she was also tough-as-nails. Lange shows it all.
Sissy Spacek did her own singing as Loretta Lynn but it was wisely decided that Cline's own recordings would be used in Sweet Dreams and Lange would lip-synch to them. And I might add to stupefying perfection. You ain't never gonna see it done better.
Lange would richly deserve her Oscar nomination but she again lost to Meryl Streep for her remarkable performance in Out of Africa. It was the second time Streep bested Lange; only three years earlier Lange was nominated for her staggering turn as Frances but lost to Streep for her heralded performance in Sophie's Choice. Damn that Meryl Streep. It's really tough to say this in lieu of so many wonderful Lange performances, but this one is my favorite.
|Two remarkable performances|
No less brilliant was Ed Harris as Charlie Dick. He was well-named; he certainly was not portrayed as a very nice man and yet Harris, with a full head of hair and looking mighty handsome, gave Charlie some humanity. He pulled off a performance with razor-sharp precision.
Kudos, too, to Ann Wedgeworth as the mother, Hilda. What a shame this fine actress hasn't had more of a career. Her scenes with Lange show the results of fine acting and wonderful writing. I think the two actresses became good friends. It shows.
The final song in the film is the title song, a heart-breaking lament and a metaphor for Cline's marriage. It is a lush rendering with a full orchestra in a concert setting with Lange/Cline in a striking white gown set against a background of reds and blacks. When I haul out my DVD, I watch and listen to this song numerous times. It is a glorious experience.
If you have somehow missed this striking film, it's time to correct that. You're in for quite a treat. Here's a preview:
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