Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Dolly Parton: Here I Am’: Portrait of a Very Small Angel

BY Mark Jackson TIMEAugust 15, 2022 PRINT

I recently reviewed documentaries on Shania Twain and Sheryl Crow, two of America’s premier country/pop/rock superstars. I decided to follow it up with “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.”

I had a curiously strong sense of déjà vu, watching “Dolly.” I thought: Where else have I seen a tiny, blond, sort of yellowish person with a big head (hair), giant eyelashes, cute as a button, but with all of the adorable presentation hiding a very shrewd mind in plain sight?

And then it hit me. Tweety Bird. That’s not a put-down. It’s a testament to Dolly’s adorableness.

woman in yellow dress in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
An early photo of Dolly Parton in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

I did not know Dolly! (I mean, who in America doesn’t know Dolly? Dolly IS America.) But, I mean, I didn’t know Dolly was a powerhouse who basically just steamrollers both Shania Twain and Sheryl Crow in terms of energy, prolific output, recognizability, and career longevity. I did not know she was the author of that Whitney Houston hit song “I Will Always Love You.” Dolly’s a force of nature and a national treasure. Truly iconic. Triple iconic.

Iconic-Iconic-Iconic

Dolly grew up poor in rural Appalachia, the fourth of 12 siblings. Like Shania and Sheryl, Dolly already had mega-talent as a young girl, but unlike those two, she wasn’t shy. She gravitated to the spotlight—loved it, craved it—and with 11 siblings, that’s quite understandable. She always felt different, which shaped her unique sense of self and fostered her humanism.

Dolly conquered Nashville. Then in 1980, she conquered Hollywood with the movie “9 to 5,” the theme song for which she wrote while wandering around the movie set on her downtime, clicking her acrylic fingernails together as an ersatz bluegrass washboard and singing over the top of it—which floored co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. They recognized it was more than just a hit song—it was an anthem.

woman with beehive hairdo in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
An early photo of Dolly Parton in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Dolly’s an icon to old-school country fans. (So’s Shania, but with Dolly it’s instantly understandable.) She’s just so ridiculously beautiful, buxom, beehive-y, mile-wide-smiley, and Grand Ole Opry country. By embracing her Appalachian mountain heritage and Nashville Americana, and with her Rococo costumes and towering wigs looking like an early 1900s Tennessee version of the court of Louis XIV, Dolly trails a “Gone With the Wind” type of nostalgia for Country & Western music’s former glory. She’s basically its all-time poster child.

Jane Fonda tells an excellent story about meeting Dolly Parton’s husband, the very handsome Carl Dean, for the first time, who was making fried green tomatoes for breakfast, for her and Dolly. When Fonda asked him to describe what initially drew him to the young Miss Parton, he related that the first time he laid eyes on her was at a gas station back in ’66. And when he began to wave his hands in the air, communicating via the universal sign language for “Va-va-voom!” the man got so excited that he fell off his chair backward. That’s 56 years of (knowing Dolly) faithful marriage, folks.

Dolly also radiates an endearing, self-deprecatory confidence. The woman’s written upward of 3,000 songs. When goaded by a journalist who told her that Whitney Houston, who made millions off Dolly’s song, claimed it was her record, Dolly smiled and responded (completely unruffled, unflappable, and in true Tweety Bird fashion): “It was her record. But it was my song. She made me very rich.”

woman with cowboy hat and red shirt in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Dolly Parton in classic country music attire in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Netflix Doc

“Dolly Parton: Here I Am” makes a good case that she’s one of the most important musicians in American music. Director Francis Whately uses Parton’s biggest hits and favorite songs to frame her story and delve into who she really is. Her famous musician friends and her backing-band musicians elaborate on her abilities, personality, and borderline savant-like songwriting ability.

The story starts out with Dolly celebrating her 50th anniversary of appearing on the Grand Ole Opry stage, which was her greatest ambition as a tiny girl. At age 18, Dolly attempted to climb the music mountain of Nashville, armed with a few old clothes and a guitar, braving hunger. As a self-described country girl who “did look like a dumb blonde,” she had to learn the ropes.

Having grown up with tons of brothers and uncles, she says, somewhat darkly, “I know the nature of men,” but not in such a way that one intuits that there was abuse. One intuits, instead, a Tweety-like ability to sidestep, duck, bob and weave, and end up getting the upper hand where overbearing men with bad intentions were concerned. Having had lots of sisters and aunts as well, she also says, “I know the nature of women,” which helped her to bond easily with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

two women in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Linda Perry (L) and Dolly Parton at an event, in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Parton’s first single, 1966’s “Dumb Blonde,” put the world on notice that she was no such thing. Over the years, the wigs got bigger and blonder, and the outfits tighter, accentuating her, er, trademark. “Dolly Parton” became a showbiz character who had massive, but comedic, sex appeal. She jokes that when women’s lib came around, she was the first woman to burn her bra, and it took the fire department three days to put the fire out.

In 1967, she joined the syndicated country music television program “The Porter Wagoner Show,” and like Goldie Hawn on “Laugh-In” (Goldie is the other 1960s ditzy-appearing blonde who was actually not in the least bit ditzy), Dolly was able to raise her profile significantly. It’s hinted that that’s where “I Will Always Love You” came from—when she left the show in 1974 to pursue a solo career and attempt a crossover into pop.

“Dolly Parton: Here I Am” lifts the curtain on Parton’s process regarding her artistry and songwriting. When, circa 2000, she started to be somewhat ignored by the country music industry, she turned to the bluegrass music indigenous to her Tennessee-holler roots, and released three albums that garnered critical acclaim but did not sell as well as she was accustomed to. Speaking of bluegrass, the deep dive into the lyric-writing of her song “The Grass Is Blue” is such a potent portrayal of a broken heart, it’ll give you goosebumps.

The low sales prompted the hiring of a new and talented manager and publicist who springboarded Dolly’s concert attendance into the stratosphere.

Blond woman in front of mirror in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Dolly Parton in her dressing room in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

But Who Is She Really?

Even Jane Fonda says that she’s never seen Dolly without her wig and makeup, and while in awe of Dolly’s ironclad showbiz professionalism, her friends muse about where her dark side might reside. As she herself puts it, “I know I look totally bizarre and artificial, but I’m totally real inside.”

Dolly does mention the sacrifices of fame but also reminds us, “All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to be a big star, and this is just part of the deal.” Country singer Mac Davis tells a story of inviting her to his daughter’s birthday party, where Dolly was immediately besieged by autograph seekers and gracefully accommodated one and all, though Davis reminded her it wasn’t necessary.

“Dolly” is a revelation for those of us Americans who weren’t paying attention. I recommend watching “Shania,” “Sheryl,” and then “Dolly” if you want to see the common denominator ingredients of music business success: world-class talent and artistry, above-average drive, work ethic, endurance, beauty, and survivor instinct.

woman with guitar in Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Dolly Parton doing some songwriting in “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.” (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Dolly’s a creature of showbiz, much like now deceased contemporary Joan Rivers. They both needed the spotlight like sharks need forward motion. But whereas Rivers came down hard on the comedy, Dolly comes down squarely on the humanity. It’s ultimately her warmth and wit that make her into someone who feels like, in her own words, “a family member to most people.”

Diehard Dolly fans will also want to watch the currently streaming “Dolly Parton: A MusiCares Tribute.” I watched about 5 minutes and skipped around in the lineup of musicians paying tribute to Dolly, singing her songs to her. It becomes quickly apparent that nobody does Dolly better than Dolly. Why? Humility and truthfulness. Every word out of her mouth rings true; everybody else is just basically showing off—not that they’re bad—it’s just not as uplifting as the real deal.

Dolly’s dark side? What dark side? Having gotten to know Dolly, I’m reminded of those fairy tales where angels come down and walk the earth as humans sometimes, bestowing blessings upon whomever they meet.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

Promotional poster for "Dolly Parton: Here I Am."
Promotional poster for “Dolly Parton: Here I Am.”

‘Dolly Parton: Here I Am’
Documentary
Director: Francis Whately
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Release Date: April 12, 2022
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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