movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

movies: Notorious (2009) and All Eyez on Me (2017)

These two biopics of the last decade handle the stories of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac, Makaveli) respectively, although their stories are intertwined and each appears in each movie. First, the disclaimer: I’m not a terribly serious rap fan and don’t know a ton about these two giants. I do like some rap music and I do like what I know of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t come into these movies with much of a background of knowledge.

So I guess I came for three things: one, I wanted to hear more of the music each man made. Two, I wanted to learn more about them as people and as public icons. And three, I was interested in the ongoing question of who killed each of them. Maybe a fourth as well – I always want to enjoy a movie and/or admire it as art.

While I enjoyed both movies and took something away, my review is mixed. I feel like in both cases more could have been done with the material. All Eyez on Me takes a particular moment as narrative present and looks back: Tupac’s in prison, giving a reporter an interview. Notorious uses a narrative voiceover, also backward-looking, although it’s not clear what (if any) specific moment he’s speaking from. While this is a technique that can work, I’m not sure it was the right choice here. In Notorious in particular, I felt like it slowed the action down. In All Eyez on Me, the interview often felt performative; at times Tupac and the interviewer explain his past to one another in an obvious narration to the audience, that kind of dialogue that feels totally unrealistic because you know both characters already know everything they’re saying. In fact, I think in All Eyez, dialogue was an overall weakness. This effect faded for me as the movie went on, but I don’t know if that’s because it actually got better, or just because I got numbed to it.

The strength of each movie was definitely its material, the legend of each of these men and the groundbreaking work they each did in rap music, the music business, and the role of rap in a larger culture. Their murders, I’m afraid, are inextricable from their legends: who can say how Biggie’s or Tupac’s career might have ended, had they had the chance to grow old and maybe wash up, sell out, or continue to build their dynasties? Even if the storytelling choices weren’t always the best ones (in my impression), even if dialogue was weak, there’s a powerful magnetism to these characters – even the acted versions of these characters, which I’d say (no offense to the actors) offers a dilution of the originals. For fans who miss their heroes, and who can put aside expecting Demetrius Shipp Jr. to be Tupac (Jamal Woolard/Biggie), there’s something here to be loved and wept over.

In a movie like this, a lot rides on how well the actor looks like, or can channel, his role. I remember in Straight Outta Compton (why didn’t I write that one up??) being really impressed with mostly uncanny lookalikes. The Eminem movie, Eight Mile, had the advantage of the star playing himself, and that one is probably my favorite of the rap biopics, maybe for that reason. From memory, I also think that both of those films featured more music, too. All Eyez did a little better than Notorious; the latter left me really wanting to hear more of Biggie rapping. I did enjoy some of the female musicians featured there, though: Faith Evans, but especially Lil Kim, who I thought was especially true-to-life as played by Naturi Naughton.

Speaking of women, I loved both all-star-cast moms! Biggie’s was played by Angela Bassett, and Tupac’s by Danai Gurira (a small role by Lauren Cohan made this a mini-Walking Dead reunion). Holy smokes – these performances threatened to steal the show. Also, a reprisal in All Eyez by Woolard as Biggie made for nice continuity; that was a good choice. I found Woolard as Biggie a more lookalike casting than Shipp as Tupac, although I have trouble explaining the latter: in some scenes, the resemblance is indeed very close. I think there was just something charismatic and inexplicable about Tupac that Shipp lacks. But I think I’m going to credit that to Tupac’s extreme charisma, rather than dock Shipp points for it, bless his heart. Tough act to follow.

Storytelling so-so; music not as plentiful as I might have hoped for; general awesomeness-as-movies a bit up-and-down. As to how much I learned about the lives of the two, well, I learned a lot I didn’t know, but can’t speak for its accuracy. I was interested to see Biggie portrayed as much more a wanton womanizer, where Tupac had exactly zero love interests until the big one came along. (He comes across as quite virtuous, IF you believe him innocent of the rape he was accused of, as the movie portrays and as he always maintained.) Tupac is portrayed as much more intelligent, ideological, full of plans and dreams and ideas, and revolutionary – although alternating with fun and hijinks. (There is a moment in Notorious that captures this perfectly: “That was Pac,” Biggie muses. “A revolutionary one minute, a thug-life motherfucker the next.”) Biggie is presented, in both movies, as just less intelligent. He doesn’t really have plans or dreams except to make money, although this is not a totally morally void ambition: he wants to provide for his kids, make things better for the next generation.

In Notorious, the question of whether Biggie had anything to do with Pac’s murder is answered: emphatically not, and Biggie was still hoping for a reconciliation. In All Eyez, the truth of what happened isn’t explained (because indeed we don’t know who killed Tupac), but Tupac does not share the goal of making up. Suge Knight is played pretty much as I understood him: a sinister, conniving figure; he could be generous but nothing comes for free. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

These movies are both far from perfect, but they were well worth my time. They’ve mostly served to further whet my curiosity. One reviewer (can’t remember where I read this) recommends I go read Murder Rap next; and who knows, maybe someday I will.


Rating: an even 6 lines for each.

movie: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

A few days of wifi access have yielded a few movies, beginning with this one. From Sundance to Netflix comes Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a recent biopic about Ted Bundy.

Bundy was known to be a handsome guy, and here played by Zac Ephron, he comes off handsomer than in real life – I’d rate the real Bundy average, not remarkable, where Ephron is eye-catching. His long-term girlfriend Liz is played by Lily Collins. The movie is based on a book that the real-life Liz wrote: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym). The movie takes Liz’s perspective at times, but at times gets well away from her, as she distances herself from Bundy during his incarceration and trials, and the film follows the courtroom drama and Bundy’s developing relationship with Carol Anne (Kaya Scodelario).

I have mixed feeling about the way Bundy was portrayed. I think the idea may have been to show the extreme creepiness of how truly everyday a serial killer can be: this is the guy next door, with arguably better-than-average good looks but otherwise unremarkable. That’s what is showed here, and that’s what’s so scary, right? But in showing how everyday (and charming and handsome) Bundy was, the film skirts the edges of the strange fandom of the gushing young women attending Bundy’s murder trial: we’re getting a little into hero worship. And that’s even creepier. This may be the trouble with telling a story like Bundy’s at all. Maybe we should be less obsessed with serial killers in the first place…

I watched the movie, though, and I have to say it was entertaining, or at least mesmerizing. Ephron’s cute; Liz is compelling, and I feel her pain. I think she could probably have used some more screen time, and somewhere I read the reasonable criticism that her decision to get sober is covered in a mere montage scene, in which she wordlessly throws away half-empty liquor bottles. For such a major life event, and for the movie’s arguable heroine (spoilers aside, she wrote the book that gave us the film, for dog’s sake), I think she may deserve more. But an engaging evening’s viewing, sure.


Rating: 5 butterflies.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter prĂ©cis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Extra brief today, and then you can get back to your Wednesday and I’ll get back to some better reading.

This book got away from me a little bit, in that I waited too long after finishing it to write this review. But that’s okay, because of my reaction to the book itself: I think it will be an easier-than-usual review to write. In a word, I love Guy Clark, and enjoyed learning more about his life and music. But as a book, I’m not blown away.

Tamara Saviano is a co-producer of the two-disc album This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, for which I’m very grateful, and she’s made other contribution to Clark’s and other musical legacies. But I feel that this authorized biography fell into the trap that they tend to fall into. It’s overly praising of its subject, and not critical enough, in the sense not that I want Guy criticized but that I want him critiqued. I want to know the finer points, the rough edges, the ambiguities and the anecdotes that don’t fit into the picture that we fans have developed of him. I wanted to find a Guy Clark who was more Hemingway or Hefner–more complicated, contradictory, and intermittently less-than-likeable–and less a saint.

I’m a big Guy Clark fan, and I loved seeing views of him at different ages, through his life: helping to repair boats in Rockport, meeting guests at his grandmother’s hotel in Monahans, playing music in my old neighborhood in Houston, meeting Susanna under the worst of circumstances. It was good to learn more about his life (and the lives of Townes and Susanna, each of them inextricable from the other two). It felt nice to sort of roll around in Guy Clark while I read this book. I loved the pictures. And I especially reveled in the details that tie Guy’s life to my own: the Montrose neighborhood in Houston where his music career got started and where I lived in high school and for some years after; the cancer hospital where I worked, and where he spent a summer working on a National Science Foundation award; the southeast-side neighborhood where he recorded “Cotton Mill Girls” just down the road from my childhood home. I used to ride my bicycle down that street, where the recording studio was. I’ve said it before: there is nothing like a strong sense of place, especially when the place in question is real and matters to the reader, to make a story feel authentic and important. These ties to Guy Clark mean the world to me.

There was value here, clearly, but it felt more like reading a lengthy pamphlet produced by the late artist’s estate, than a book with artistic value for its own sake. Maybe I’ve been in creative nonfiction for too long and forgotten how to appreciate “straight” biography. I wonder what I’d find if I reread Mr. Playboy or one of the Hemingway biographies I’ve enjoyed in years past. But I really think the problem here for me was the stance taken on the subject: that this is a fan’s authorized biography, and not a close and clear look at a multifaceted human being. In the end, while I enjoyed some aspects of what I found, I’m disappointed.

I marked this line, attributed to Guy by Roseanne Cash: “You have to throw out the best line of your song if it doesn’t serve the rest of the song.” Fine advice for a writer. This book feels like it tried to serve Guy Clark’s memory more than its own song.


Rating: generously, 6 fifths of Palomino Whiskey, if I give credit for the subject matter.

Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation by Robert J. Norrell

History and literary criticism enrich the first biography of Alex Haley, author of Roots and Malcolm X’s Autobiography.

alex haley

Alex Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to him), and Roots, the story of his family from Africa through slavery and the Civil War. Separately, these books had a profound impact on how the United States viewed race relations and its own history. Together, their influence could hardly be overstated, and that is what Robert J. Norrell argues in Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, the first biography of Haley and a study of his two seminal works and the controversies they fostered.

Norrell covers Haley’s forebears and Tennessee childhood, his three marriages and a writing career growing from the Coast Guard (where ghost-writing personal letters led to public relations assignments) to magazine work, which led to his interviewing Malcolm X for Reader’s Digest and Playboy. The process for Malcolm’s Autobiography (1965) was dynamic, as Haley walked the fine line between Malcolm’s voice and Haley’s more moderate political position, and as Malcolm’s views on race relations evolved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots (1976) was even harder won, as Haley drew a short book contract out over more than 11 years of research and travel. The effect of the book, and its accompanying television miniseries, was astounding. And yet the rest of his life and work would be shadowed by accusations of copyright infringements and invention in what Haley called a work of nonfiction.

With sensitivity and careful study, Norrell examines Haley’s embattled life and extraordinary achievements. His final conclusion about this “likeable narcissist” is that despite Haley’s imperfections, his influence was prodigious and deserves our respect and continued study today.


This review originally ran in the December 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 pieces of gossip.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.


Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 Christmas parties.
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