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Dolly Parton introduces Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors seated in a Christmas sleigh parked in front of a gigantic Dollywood sign. The plug for her Tennessee amusement park is justified by the fact that the commercial venture is located in the same rustic environment in which Dolly grew up, and that’s the site of this TV-movie set in 1955. The sleigh is there because Dolly clearly wants Coat of Many Colors to become a holiday tradition, even though the plot has nothing specifically to do with Christmas.
Once the movie begins, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be the most down-home family production since The Waltons. Country singer Jennifer Nettles and Ricky Schroder star as the parents of a very young version of Dolly Parton, played with glowing winsomeness by eight year-old Alyvia Alyn Lind. They live on a mountain top in Tennessee, a big family, very poor but rich in love. The dialogue is super-twangy. (Momma to Dolly: “Yore singin’! It pours outta you lahk a bucket filled with holes!”)
Basically, within the first half-hour, you have a decision to make. This is a production so wholeheartedly sentimental, so boldly maudlin, that you have to either respect and admire the total commitment to cornball that everyone involve has made, or cash out and turn the channel.
I have a feeling anyone who’s moved to tune in is not going to tune out. Based on Parton’s 1971 hit song, it’s about a coat stitched together from rags that Dolly’s momma made for her when she was little. The coat comes in for some ridicule among Dolly’s schoolmates, which leads little Dolly to become first embarrassed and then angry — at the kids for their cruelty and at her mother for having convinced her it was a beautiful item of clothing.
But this TV-movie takes a dark turn and stays in that darkness for a surprisingly long time: A pregnant Momma loses her baby — it would have been her ninth — and it leads to a crisis in her marriage. She becomes depressed; for a reason I don’t want to reveal because it amounts to a spoiler, Daddy moves into the barn. There is a lot of self-righteous advice dispensed by Momma’s preacher-father, played with a rich righteousness by Gerald McRaney. I was, frankly, surprised that Coat of Many Colors would explore marital unhappiness at such length, but then, I should have counted that as a credit to — who else? — Dolly Parton and her source material.
The 1971 Parton song upon which this movie is based is a classic, a mini-masterpiece. That’s partly due to Parton’s vocal, which is ringingly clear and firm, and to her lyrics, which are observations and memories described with minimal adjectives or manipulative language. She takes up the Book of Genesis mention of Joseph’s coat of many colors and adapts it to her own life so directly, so simply, that its metaphorical power seems to come directly from her as opposed to the Bible. (The song’s folk-based melody, so tightly astringent, helps as well.)
I’ve read some advance stories about Coat as being a rare example of “faith-based entertainment” on network television, and would like to point out that Pamela K. Long’s script gives equal time to Daddy’s resistance to church-going — which only makes the faith dramatized here all the more effective, because it’s a conscious choice each character makes.
The pastoral nostalgia that this TV-movie taps into is powerful, if maudlin, stuff. This is the time of year when sentimentality can be a warming thing, and Parton’s Coat will keep an awful lot of people warm this winter.
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. on NBC.