Celluloid Country: Sweet Dreams, Starring Jessica Lange (The Patsy Cline Biopic)
Patsy Cline has always been a larger than life figure in country music. Bold, brassy, and occasionally raunchy, Patsy (or “The Cline,” as she called herself), fit right into country’s rowdy, male-dominated world, even as Owen Bradley transformed the honky tonk angel into a sultry torch singer. Her rise to stardom and her tragic end is the stuff great movies are made of; and after the success of Coal Miner’s Daughter just five years earlier, who can blame Hollywood for releasing the 1985 Cline biopic Sweet Dreams?
As far as country music films go, Sweet Dreams is a good one despite its inaccuracies and thanks to above average acting. Jessica Lange aptly resembles Cline, though not to the extent that Beverley D’Angelo does in her role as Cline in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Still, the hair, makeup and wardrobe are spot-on, even if the homemade cowgirl outfits Cline wore in the beginning of her career are nowhere to be seen.
Of course, all the fancy clothing in the world can’t make a leading lady sing like Patsy Cline, and although Lange lip-syncs her heart out, it’s painfully obvious and often distracting. Aside from this misstep, however, Lange is absolutely captivating as Cline, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Elsewhere, Ed Harris is roguishly charismatic as Cline’s second husband Charlie Dick. Sweet Dreams portrays their marriage as tumultuous, perhaps more than it truly was. Scenes featuring Harris and Lange together are truly incendiary as Patsy and Charlie swerve from passionate to abusive and back again.
The film does gloss over some of Cline’s more unappealing traits, such as her tendencies toward adultery during her first marriage, not only with Charlie Dick but also (allegedly) with her manager and various other lovers; a fact especially troubling since things like her legendary kindness, and friendships with other singers, are ignored. Though inclusion of these positive incidents may have derailed the tragic progression of the story, it would have provided viewers with a more accurate and well-rounded portrait of the singer.
Unlike other biopics, such as The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba, Sweet Dreams includes the fatal plane crash which claimed the lives of the thirty-year old Cline, Hughes, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Though the entire film leads up to this scene, it’s still incredibly jarring and heart-wrenching to see even a fictional version of such a tragedy, one which not only killed an individual many consider to be the greatest female singer to ever live, but also talented Opry stars Hawkins and Copas.
Director Karel Reisz and Producer Bernard Schwartz do an average job of creating a musical atmosphere within the film, with one glaring mistake: Though the film begins in 1956 in Cline’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, the music used for all of the performance scenes are taken from her later Nashville recordings between 1960 and 1963, entirely ignoring the recordings she did in the 1950s with Four Star Records. Though the filmmakers offer a disclaimer stating as much, the blurring of the truth will (and did) rile purists. Cline’s later, Bradley-produced recordings are aesthetically better songs, yes, but this deliberate decision to streamline Patsy Cline’s musical journey for popular consumption strikes a sour note.
Aside from Cline’s music, there are also songs by Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Benny Miller, Gene Vincent, and in an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, Buddy Holly.
The most interesting part of the film is all of the controversy it generated after its release. Widower Charlie Dick denies committing the physical abuse depicted in the movie, though in Nicholas Dawidoff’s In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music, Dick states that he “smacked her one time,” while former bandmate Bud Armel has stated that had her husband been physically abusive, “she’d have killed him.” Cline’s mother, Hilda Hensley, stated that she only saw the film once and that was enough for her. As counterparts to Sweet Dreams, documentaries such as The Real Patsy Cline and Remembering Patsy were released featuring clips of Cline’s performances as well as commentary from friends and fellow artists such as Dottie West and Loretta Lynn.
If you want to be entertained, Sweet Dreams is a decent way to spend a couple of hours. Should you come across somebody unaware of Patsy Cline’s life and role in country music, sitting him or her down in front of this film could be a good start. But if you want to know more about Cline the person (warts and all), Cline the artist, and Cline the legacy, you’d be better off viewing the documentaries.
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