Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
I do not consider myself a country music fan, although a lot of the music I like does have some country roots. I do make some exceptions for some country music, though, and Patsy Cline ranks pretty high on that scale. It’s not so much the songs themselves. It’s that the woman had the voice of an angel. Seriously, go listen to “I Fall to Pieces.” I’ll wait here until you come back.
Back? Okay. Sweet Dreams is the story of Cline’s life, or at least the relevant and most important parts of Cline’s life—her first and second marriages, he rise to stardom, and her tragic and untimely death in a plane crash at the height of her stardom. It’s fair for those not familiar with Patsy Cline and her career to wonder why she’d be worth a biopic. Cline was one of the first country music artists to experience crossover success, charting on both country and pop and contemporary charts in the early ‘60s. She’s still iconic in music in country music in particular and music in general, and still has tremendous influence. And, of course, her career was interrupted by a terrible car accident and then cut tragically short by her death after a few scant years of recording.
Sweet Dreams spends some time on the career of Patsy Cline (Jessica Lange), as it should, but concentrates much more on her tumultuous relationship with Charlie Dick (Ed Harris, with hair!), her second husband. The relationship is exactly what you’d expect in a movie; it’s not going to be a happy marriage. As the film starts, Patsy is already married and singing in bars. She’s pursued by Charlie, who eventually catches her. After a whirlwind romance and a divorce, the two start their life together. Patsy’s career takes off with a television appearance on a talent show, but is sidelined by Charlie being drafted and her becoming pregnant with their first child.
Essentially, the rest of the movie follows the ups and downs of her career and the similar ups and downs of her marriage. It’s almost a cliché to say that the down parts of the marriage include physical abuse on a few occasions as well as frequent infidelity on the part of Charlie. The film never says it explicitly, but there’s a definite subtext here that Charlie’s problems with Patsy come in no small part from her being famous and outearning him by a long shot, something that might well have been a point of embarrassment for a typical red-blooded male in the early 1960s. Anyway, their relationship spirals out of control eventually, and never comes to any conclusion because of Cline’s untimely death.
I’d have liked more focus on Patsy Cline’s career. The personal issues and the car accident that nearly killed her are important, of course, but it’s the music that made Patsy Cline who she was and why she was memorable, not the various traumas of her life. I suppose an argument could be made that one of the reasons she sang with such depth of feeling and passion was because of her life, and I’d buy that argument. Still, I’d have liked more of her singing.
On that point, it’s worth noting that Jessica Lange didn’t sing for Sweet Dreams. On most levels, that’s absolutely the right decision. A talented actor with some training can duplicate a singing voice, evidenced by films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk the Line. However, no one could adequately duplicate the vocal work of Patsy Cline. In that respect, it’s the right choice. The only real downside is that there are times when it’s evident that Jessica Lange is lip-synching.
That is really the only down part of her performance. She’s completely believable as Patsy Cline every non-singing time she opens her mouth. I don’t think she’s been better in a role. I’d put her performance here on the same level as Sissy Spacek in the aforementioned Coal Miner’s Daughter and only a step or two behind the pinnacle achieved by Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose. It’s really that good.
I’m a little surprised at the lack of Oscar love for Ed Harris. He’s a match for Lange in most scenes, even if she’s the one to watch.
Sweet Dreams isn’t an enjoyable movie because aside from her success, it doesn’t look like Patsy Cline’s life was that enjoyable, at least as depicted here. But it is a hell of a story. If nothing else, it’s a chance to listen to one of the greatest singers to ever walk on a stage since stages were created, and really, that should be enough.
Why to watch Sweet Dreams: Because Patsy Cline had a voice for the ages.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like Patsy Cline, you won’t like this…and I feel sorry for you.