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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 03:21 pm

Country musicals

Walk the Line among a few films to explore an authentic American musical genre

Harry Potter may be dominating the box office, but the real story is the strong opening of Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. Country music is a subject rarely explored by Hollywood, because the genre often fails to find a market. I am hardly an aficionado of this music form, but good films can be made on any subject. Country music was crystallized in my mind the night I was sitting in a West Virginia gas-station food court listening to something called “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.” Previously Loretta Lynn was among the only country singers to receive the biography treatment in a major feature film: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Sissy Spacek overcame physical differences from her subject in her award-winning portrayal of Lynn’s rise from poverty to country-music stardom. Spacek also did her own singing. Tommy Lee Jones is every bit her equal as Lynn’s husband, in a role that proved to be his breakthrough. Although we haven’t been subjected to a big-screen film about Dolly Parton, Rhinestone (1984) serves as a perfect substitute. Parton is a country singer who bets that she can transform anyone into a singing star. Her target is a New York cabdriver, played with gusto by Sylvester Stallone. Spacek was lauded for her singing in Coal Miner’s Daughter, but where was the praise for Stallone? His rendition of “Drinkenstein” is a movie moment for all eternity. Rhinestone may inspire laughter for the wrong reasons, but it has much to offer for fans of bad cinema. Dill Scallion isn’t a real country singer but the focus of an eponymously titled mockumentary. Billy Burke stars in this obscure gem as an egotistical singer whose fall is faster than his rise. The tone is sarcastic from beginning to end, and the film offers such highlights as a song titled “I Found Love at the Family Reunion” and a benefit concert for gingivitis. Original music was written by Sheryl Crow. I didn’t know she has a sense of humor.
The world of country music was encapsulated 30 years ago in Robert Altman’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece Nashville. Altman probes the inner workings of the industry, exposing its cynicism and hypocrisies and antagonizing its characters’ real-life counterparts in the process. Nashville may be more of a movie for people who don’t like country music, and it remains without peer for any film using the musical format.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Dec. 6): Fantastic Four, Cinderella Man, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Ladies in Lavender.
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