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Alyvia Alyn Lind, Jennifer Nettles, and Rick Schroder (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)
“Coat of Many Colors” is still Dolly Parton’s favorite song she’s ever written. The deeply personal story about how her mother had sewn her a coat from a box of rags is a tearjerker: Young Dolly thought the coat was beautiful because her mother had made it with love, but Dolly’s schoolmates laughed at her.
The song is the inspiration for Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, a TV movie premiering Thursday on NBC that’s described not as a biopic but as a “family-oriented faith-based story” about the events in Dolly and her family’s life around the time she was nine. It shows the true heartache and healing the coat represents for her mother (played by Jennifer Nettles) — and, perhaps, the real reason Parton couldn’t perform the song without crying for months after her mother’s 2003 death.
Fans who’ve made the pilgrimage to Dollywood have been able to see the real coat on display. They may be surprised to see that the coat young star Alyvia Alyn Lind wears in the movie looks nothing like it.
The movie’s costume designer, Michael Boyd (whose credits include HBO’s Bessie and 2010′s big-screen Secretariat), assumed he’d be recreating the coat. But once he signed on, “It came from Dolly on down to me that we would make it more vibrant, more colorful,” he tells Yahoo TV. “Obviously the coat’s so many decades old now, and it faded I’m sure, as all fabric does. You can’t replicate a coat that’s so many years old and have people believe there’s wonder in that coat. You’re watching the story, so you have to look at it from the child’s eye — from young Dolly’s eye — and from the love that her mother took to build the coat.”
Doing historical research, he looked at what kind of cotton fabrics would’ve been available in the mid-’50s and late ‘40s. “What kind of patterns? What kind of colors were available? Some of the fabric on the coat that we ended up with, I actually had the fabric in my collection,” Boyd says. “I might’ve had some of that fabric for 20 years. Who knew, right?” They also went to a lot of quilt shops, which had the kind of volume he needed in retro patterns. While Parton’s mother used bigger pieces of fabric, particularly on the front of the coat, “She was just trying to make that young daughter of hers something to wear to warm her, but we had a different mission in this wonderful story,” he says. “I’m very proud to say we knocked it out of the park on the first go-round, so that was good.”
Of course, his team had to make more than one coat for the movie, for both the wear and literal tear it receives in the movie and because you always need extras when you’re working with younger stars. “I think we made like, 6 to 8 of those things,” he says. “This is a feat for the ladies I had working for me in the tailor shop. They had to make that coat exactly the same — geometrically, it had to match. I would say throughout our weeks of filming, somebody in that shop was always working on a coat.”
Having a project revolve around a piece of clothing, so much so that it’s the title, is rare. But that’s not the only thing that made this particular job a pleasure for Boyd. “I’ve done features, miniseries, I’ve done all of them. I say this with all humility, it doesn’t matter to me what the medium is, whether it’s going to be on television or a big screen or whatever. Is it really a great story? Is it an inspirational story? This is as good as anything I’ve ever worked on. Everybody involved with the show was on the same page, and that doesn’t happen every day.”
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors premieres Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. on NBC.