DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Loretta Lynn, recorded her first single, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," 61 years ago. Lynn is famous for her singing and songwriting and for her life story told in the 1980 film "Coal Miner's Daughter." It was adapted from Lynn's 1976 memoir of the same name, which described how she grew up in poverty in eastern Kentucky, became a wife at age 13 and, after having four children, started writing songs and performing [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION below]. A new updated and expanded edition of her memoir has just been published. Lynn also has a new album titled "Still Woman Enough." Here's the title track, which features Lynn, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL WOMAN ENOUGH")
LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I've been through some bad times, been on the bottom, been at the top. And I've seen life from both sides. It's what you make with what you've got. There's been times life's got me down - pick myself up and bounce right back around. I wasn't raised to give up. And to this day, you know what? I'm still...
LORETTA LYNN, REBA MCENTIRE, CARRIE UNDERWOOD: (Singing) Woman enough, still got what it takes inside. I know how to love, lose and survive. Ain't much I ain't seen and I ain't tried. Been knocked down, but never out of the fight. I'm strong, but I'm tender, wise, but I'm tough.
LYNN: (Singing) And let me tell you, when it comes to love, I'm still woman enough.
DAVIES: When Terry spoke with Loretta Lynn in 2010, a tribute CD had been released which featured her songs recorded by the White Stripes, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Carrie Underwood, Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert and others. They started with Loretta's first recording, "Honky Tonk Girl," and followed by the version on the tribute album performed by Lee Ann Womack.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A HONKY TONK GIRL")
LYNN: (Singing) Ever since you left me, I've done nothing but wrong. Many nights I've laid awake and cried. We once were happy. My heart was in a whirl. But now I'm a honky-tonk girl. So turn...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A HONKY TONK GIRL")
LEE ANN WOMACK: (Singing) So turn that jukebox way up high. And fill my glass up while I cry. I've lost everything in this world, and now I'm a honky-tonk girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So we heard Loretta Lynn singing her song, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," and then Lee Ann Womack from the new Loretta Lynn tribute, "Coal Miner's Daughter." Loretta Lynn, what a great pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming.
LYNN: Thank you, Terry. It's really nice to be on your show.
GROSS: Now, did you pick the performers on the new tribute CD, and did you talk with them at all about the songs?
LYNN: No, I didn't talk to them. I just told my manager who I would like to have on the - you know, the record. And the next thing I knew, they were here, and we did the album. We had a good time. Me and Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert did the video down at my house, and we were there all day long, so we had a good time.
GROSS: Now, the song we just heard - that's the first song you wrote. It was your first record released in 1960. You say you wrote it in 20 minutes on a $17 guitar that your husband bought for you...
LYNN: That's true (laughter).
GROSS: ...Because he thought you sang well. And you wrote a song because he told you to. Do you think you ever would have written or performed if your husband didn't say, that's what you should do?
LYNN: No, I wouldn't have because I was too bashful. I wouldn't get out in front of people. I wouldn't - you know, I was really bashful. And I wouldn't - I would have never sang in front of anybody.
GROSS: So when you wrote "Honky Tonk Girl" with absolutely no songwriting experience, how did you approach writing a song?
LYNN: You know, I just sat down with my guitar. I was outside. In fact, I was leaning up against the old toilet out there on the West Coast in Washington state.
GROSS: Did you say the toilet?
LYNN: The old toilet, yeah.
LYNN: And I sat there and wrote "Honky Tonk Girl" and "Whispering Sea."
GROSS: So what made you think of the story that you tell in "Honky Tonk Girl"?
LYNN: Well, I think I probably listened to a bunch of people, you know, their songs and stuff. And I figured, well, I can - if they can write, I can, too. So I just said, hey, I'm going to tell a story. And that's what I did.
GROSS: And had you hung out at honky-tonks, or did you know them from songs?
LYNN: No. When I first started writing, my husband got me a job at this little bar. And me and a steel player and my brother - he played the fiddle and sang. So we sang together. And so we really had a good time, you know? And I wrote "Honky Tonk Girl" and "Whispering Sea" during that time.
GROSS: So you were doing some performing?
LYNN: Yeah, I just had started.
GROSS: I see.
LYNN: In fact, I had never sang in front of anybody till my husband pushed me out there, you know? I'd never been out and sang for anybody.
GROSS: But at home, you sang.
LYNN: I rocked the babies to sleep. And in Kentucky, when I was growing up with my sisters and brothers, we all sang and rocked the babies to sleep, you know? But that was about as far as we ever did, you know?
GROSS: So when you recorded your first single, "Honky Tonk Girl," you were 24. You'd already been married for 11 years because you got married when you were 13, and you already had four children. Do I have that right?
LYNN: I had four kids.
GROSS: And the twins came a little bit later.
LYNN: Yeah, the twins come later.
GROSS: What was your life like as a wife and mother before you started recording?
LYNN: It wasn't easy. Me and my husband both worked. I took care of the farmhouse. I cleaned and cooked for 36 ranch hands.
LYNN: And - yeah, before I started singing. And so singing was easy. I thought, gee whiz, this is an easy job.
GROSS: Wait. So you cooked and cleaned for 36 ranch hands and had four children.
LYNN: Sure did. Paid the rent on the old house that we lived in. And that's what I did to make the rent, yeah.
LYNN: It wasn't easy, let me tell you. Life was hard (laughter).
GROSS: So when you made your first appearance on the Opry, which was the same year that you recorded "Honky Tonk Girl"...
GROSS: ...You weren't used to performing on such a prestigious stage in front of...
LYNN: Oh, no.
GROSS: ...An audience like that. Did you know how to perform onstage in a place like the Opry?
LYNN: Not really. I just got up there with my guitar, and I sang. I mean, I just did it just like I was doing it at home, you know? I never thought about it being the Grand Ole Opry because if I had have, I wouldn't have been able to have done it. You just pretty well got to figure, well, you know, this is something like you do every day.
GROSS: Right (laughter). It's so much like what you do every day.
LYNN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: My guest is Loretta Lynn.
So the next song we're going to hear is a song that you first recorded in 1966, "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)." And this is a great song. We're going to hear your version. But first I want to hear the story of how you wrote it. You'd already had about six years of songwriting experience behind you. You probably were no longer leaning against the toilet when you (laughter) - when you wrote this.
LYNN: I was probably out at the - Doo had fixed me a little writing room at this time out in Goodlettsville.
GROSS: Doo's your husband - was your late husband, yeah.
LYNN: Doo is my husband, yes. And he's the only one I've ever had. And so he fixed me this little writing room, and I'd go out there, and I'd write. And this was one of the songs that I wrote, was "Don't Come A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)."
GROSS: And at this point, did you feel like, I know how to write a song?
LYNN: Oh, yeah. When I wrote "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'," I knew I could write because I'd had quite a few on the charts by that time.
GROSS: Now, you've said that your husband is in every song that you've written in a large way or in a small way...
LYNN: Still is, I mean, (laughter) if I write a song, he's in there somewhere.
GROSS: Were you thinking of him when you wrote this song?
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Would he come home after drinking like that?
LYNN: Well, sure. If a man drinks, he's going to come home drinking. He like to drink.
GROSS: Was this song intended to send him a message at all?
LYNN: Not really. I probably told him many times. I didn't have to sing about it.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the song.
LYNN: All right.
GROSS: This is "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'," recorded in 1966 by Loretta Lynn.
GROSS: And it was a No. 1 country music chart hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON’T COME HOME A DRINKIN’")
LYNN: (Singing) Well, you thought I'd be waiting up when you came home last night. You'd been out with all the boys. And you ended up half tight. But liquor and love, they just don't mix. Leave the bottle or me behind. And don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind. No, don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind. Just stay out there on the town and see what you can find, because if you want that kind of love, well, you don't need none of mine. So don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind.
GROSS: That was Loretta Lynn recorded in 1966. And there's a new Loretta Lynn tribute CD. And on that CD, that song is performed by Gretchen Wilson. Now, when you started performing, Patsy Cline was your mentor until she died.
LYNN: But, you know, she hadn't been in the business that long when I come to Nashville. She'd only been singing two or three years and - yeah.
GROSS: So she must have really related to what you were going through.
LYNN: Oh, yeah. We talked a lot (laughter).
GROSS: What were some of the things that she taught you that really helped you a lot, things relating to - you know, from clothing to performing style to dealing with the music industry.
LYNN: Well, she kind of helped me...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
LYNN: ...You know, with the style and everything that I was - you know, I was in blue jeans and a T-shirt or blue jeans and just a Western shirt. And she taught me a lot, how to dress and...
GROSS: What did she tell you about how to dress?
LYNN: Well, she told me to get out of the jeans, you know? Of course, I would wear them until we get to the radio station. Then I'd get in the backseat and put on my dress. Then I'd take the dress off and go back into my jeans and wait 'till the next radio station.
LYNN: And then I'd go back into my dress again (laughter).
GROSS: My guest is Loretta Lynn. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LORETTA LYNN SONG, "FAMILY TREE")
GROSS: My guest is country music star Loretta Lynn. I want to play another song that you wrote. And this was a song that was actually pretty controversial at the time it came out. And it's called "Rated 'X'."
LYNN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: And I'm going to let you describe what the song's about.
LYNN: Well, it's about a woman that's been married and divorced. And I'll let you listen to it (laughter).
GROSS: OK. And what I want to do, I want to go to the tribute CD. The White Stripes have a really good reworked, like, reinterpreted version of this.
GROSS: And I know you've worked with Jack White before. He produced a terrific album of yours...
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...In 2004 called "Van Lear Rose."
GROSS: So do you want to say anything about the White Stripes version of your song?
LYNN: Well, I think whatever Jack does is good. I mean, you can't - I mean, he's good. You have to love him. So this is good.
GROSS: OK. So this is the song Loretta Lynn wrote. She recorded it in 1971. It's called "Rated 'X'." And here's the White Stripes from the Loretta Lynn tribute album, "Coal Miner's Daughter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RATED 'X'")
THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Well, if you've been a married woman, and things didn't seem to work out, divorce is the key to being loose and free. But you're going to be talked about. Everybody knows that you've loved once. They think you'll love again. You can't have a male friend when you're a has-been of a woman you're rated X. And if you're rated X, you're some kind of goal that even men turned civil try to make. But I think it's wrong to judge every picture if a cheap camera makes a mistake. So if your best friend's husband says to you that you've started looking good, you should've known he would. And he would if he could. And he will if you're rated X. Well…
GROSS: That's the White Stripes from the new Loretta Lynn tribute album, "Coal Miner's Daughter." And, now, we were talking before about writing from a woman's point of view, which "Rated X" most certainly is, you know, about what it's like to be a divorced woman when men think that you're available and try to take advantage of you and you have a reputation. So why was the song controversial?
LYNN: I think it was because, you know, you're - been a married woman. I think when you write about it, they take it to heart, too, you know, they - people do. So I think that was it. It just starts out, if you've been a married woman, things didn't seem to work out, divorce is the key to being loose and free. So you're going to be talked about. So that's exactly how it is, you know?
GROSS: When you called it "Rated 'X'," I mean, do you think some people thought, oh, this is going to be a very provocative, sexy (laughter)...
LYNN: Oh, yeah. You know, a lot of the...
GROSS: ...Song because it's called "Rated 'X'."
LYNN: Yeah. A lot of the disc jockeys, you know, banned it before they even listened to it. And, you know, after it got way up in the charts, and they all flipped the record, started listening to it and playing it. But, you know, another old, dirty record from Loretta Lynn.
GROSS: Now, something that was even more controversial than "Rated 'X'" was your song "The Pill," which is about...
LYNN: That's right, "The Pill" and "One's On The Way." And, you know, we have a lot of them that says it like it is. So that's - really, I guess, we're not to talk about the way it is (laughter).
GROSS: This has some lyrics that I think, you know, really were controversial in some country music circles at the time. And the lyrics include, this old maternity dress I've got is going in the garbage. And you've set this chicken your last time because now I've got the pill.
GROSS: I'm tearing down this brooder house because now I've got the pill.
GROSS: So the song sounds autobiographical in some ways. I'm not saying that you are necessarily angry in the way that the character in the song is angry. But you had six children.
LYNN: I had six kids. I lost three.
GROSS: You lost three.
LYNN: I lost three.
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that.
LYNN: I was about five and six - well, it wasn't - you know, I lost them before they were born.
GROSS: Oh. So you had six and lost three others? Wow.
LYNN: Yeah. So...
GROSS: That's a lot of pregnancies.
GROSS: Yeah. Right. OK. Stating the obvious. Did you share the song's anger?
LYNN: Well, I sure didn't like it when I got pregnant a few times, you know? It's hard for a woman to have so many kids. And, well, at the time, I guess I had four. And then I got pregnant and had - you know, with the twins. But, yeah, I was a little angry.
GROSS: Let's hear it. And this was released in 1975...
LYNN: All right.
GROSS: ...Recorded in 1972. This is Loretta Lynn, "The Pill."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PILL")
LYNN: (Singing) You wined me and dined me when I was your girl, promised if I'd be your wife, you'd show me the world. But all I've seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill. I'm tearing down your brooder house 'cause now I've got the pill. All these years I've stayed at home while you had all your fun. And every year that's gone by another baby's come. There's going to be some changes made right here on nursery hill. You've set this chicken your last time 'cause now I've got the pill. This old maternity dress I've got is going in the garbage. The clothes I'm wearing from now on won't take up so much yardage. Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills - yeah, I'm making up for all those years since I've got the pill.
GROSS: That's Loretta Lynn, recorded in 1972. It was released in '75. The song is called "The Pill." Now, you've said that you never even used the pill as birth control (laughter).
LYNN: Well, if I'd had it, I'd have used it. At the time I...
GROSS: I see. Right.
LYNN: Yeah, because even - back when I was having all the kids, we didn't have birth control pills. Or if they did, I didn't know anything about them.
GROSS: Well, so you write that there's a lot you didn't know about, that you were 13 when you got married in 1947. And you say you didn't even...
LYNN: Didn't know anything about sex either, did I (laughter)?
GROSS: No. You said you didn't know anything about sex...
GROSS: ...Or even pregnancy. You say when you got pregnant, you didn't even know the word. Is that right?
LYNN: Well, I don't know. I guess we just called it having a baby. We didn't call it pregnant. Back in Butcher Holler, there was a lot of things we didn't know...
LYNN: ...A lot of things they still don't know back there (laughter).
GROSS: When I think of you getting married at 13, it just seems so young.
LYNN: Well, it is. It is way too young, you know?
GROSS: What made you think that you were ready?
LYNN: Don't ask me. I was 13.
GROSS: So when you got married about a year afterwards, you moved to the state of Washington.
LYNN: Washington state.
GROSS: Far away. Did you feel lost for a while when you moved away from...
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...Your family and everything you knew?
LYNN: Yeah. Daddy said, he told me he wouldn't take you away where I couldn't see you (laughter). And here I was, 3,000 miles away two months after he married me.
GROSS: Wow. I was thinking what it must've been like for you to be, you know, so far away from home at the age of, like, 13, 14, 15...
GROSS: ...Having children already. You probably had no idea you were ever going to become famous.
LYNN: No. Never. And I still don't (laughter). I'm not famous. I'm just me.
DAVIES: Loretta Lynn speaking with Terry Gross in 2010. She has a new CD. And a new, updated version of her memoir has just been published. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Father," starring Anthony Hopkins. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new PBS "American Masters" documentary on Marian Anderson. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY LOVE")
LYNN: (Singing) His sweet caress, his tenderness, his warm embrace, his gentle face - I love him so. I'll let him know...
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with country music star Loretta Lynn. Her life story was made famous in the 1980 film "Coal Miner's Daughter," starring Sissy Spacek as Lynn. An updated and expanded version of her memoir, "Coal Miner's Daughter," has been released. And she has a new CD which celebrates the women of country music. Terry spoke with Loretta Lynn in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, there's one kind of song you've written that I haven't asked you about, and that is the I am so angry, you'd better be careful, because if you take my man, I will actually hit you kind of song.
LYNN: Is that "Fist City"?
GROSS: I'm thinking "Fist City," yeah.
GROSS: And it's not exactly a sisterhood is powerful kind of song. The lyric is, if you don't want to go to Fist City, you'd better detour around my town or else I'll grab you by the hair of your head and lift you off the ground (laughter).
GROSS: So tell me about writing a lyric like this where, I mean, it's like real physical anger.
LYNN: Well, there was an old gal that tried to take Doolittle away from me.
GROSS: There was somebody who tried that?
LYNN: Yeah, there was somebody. And - but she didn't make it.
GROSS: Did you threaten her?
LYNN: Yes, I did (laughter) with more than a song.
GROSS: And not in rhyme (laughter).
LYNN: That's right. It didn't rhyme at all (laughter).
GROSS: What did you tell her?
LYNN: I just told her back off. She's playing with the wrong deal.
GROSS: You know what's amazing to me? Like, why would somebody think that they could compete with you? And also, maybe I'm speaking out of turn here, but, like, why would your husband...
LYNN: Well, that's how women take your husband away from you all the time. So they all think that, you know.
LYNN: Are you married?
LYNN: Oh, Lord, you'll kill us. You'll kill us.
LYNN: Don't let him hear this.
GROSS: We're OK.
GROSS: So was it right after this incident that you sat down and wrote the song?
LYNN: You know, I don't know exactly when I wrote the song, but I'm pretty sure that I had some things in mind when I wrote it. I won't talk about it.
GROSS: That's fine. But do you think she knew that it was about her?
LYNN: I just imagine.
GROSS: You imagine that she did?
LYNN: I imagine she did.
LYNN: I probably told her.
GROSS: Oh, nice.
GROSS: OK. So this is "Fist City." This is Loretta Lynn, one of her many hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIST CITY")
LYNN: (Singing) You've been making your brags around town that you've been loving my man. But the man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. And that's what you look like to me. And what I see's a pity. You better close your face and stay out of my way if you don't want to go to Fist City. If you don't want to go to Fist City, you better detour around my town 'cause I'll grab you by the hair of the head. And I'll lift you off of the ground. I'm not saying my baby's a saint 'cause he ain't and that he won't cat around with a kitty. I'm here to tell you, gal, to lay off of my man if you don't want to go to Fist City. Come on and tell me what you told my friends if you think you're brave enough. And I'll show you what a real woman is since you think you're hot stuff. You'll bite off more than you can chew if you get too cute or witty. You better move your feet if you don't want to eat a meal that's called Fist City. If you don't want to go to...
GROSS: So that was "Fist City" featuring Loretta Lynn. I want to play another song, and this is something more recent than what we've been hearing. This is your collaboration with Jack White. He produced an album of yours in 2004, "Van Lear Rose." How did you meet?
LYNN: I went to Detroit to work. And Jack White came to see me. And of course, he told me about when he was little, he was about 9 years old when "Coal Miner's Daughter" came out. He stayed in the theater the whole time, all day long, and watched "Coal Miner's Daughter" over and over and over. So when he got a chance to work with me, he says - I told him I had to go home because I said, I've got to hurry because I got to record tomorrow. He says, well, how about me coming and being the producer? I said, well, why not? That's how we got together. So he was in Nashville by the time I was. And we recorded. And that's how we started. He lives here in Nashville now.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.
LYNN: Oh, yeah. He lives here in Nashville. So yeah.
GROSS: So you're good friends now?
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: That's great.
LYNN: We've always been good friends ever since we did the album.
GROSS: The track I want to play is called "Miss Being Mrs." You wrote all the songs on this album. And this is one of my favorites. I like the song a lot. And also I just love how stripped down it is. It's just you and a guitar. Is that Jack White on guitar?
LYNN: That's Jack White.
GROSS: OK. Do you want to say anything about writing the song?
LYNN: Well, you know, I don't like to talk about the way I write songs. I just let people hear what I'm talking about.
GROSS: All right. Good enough. So this is Loretta Lynn from the 2004 album "Van Lear Rose" produced by Jack White, who's accompanying her on guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS BEING MRS.")
LYNN: (Singing) I lie here all alone in my bed of memories. I'm dreaming of your sweet kiss. Oh, how you loved on me. I can almost feel you with me. Here in this blue moon light, oh, I miss being Mrs. tonight. Like so many other hearts, mine wanted to be free. I've been held here every day since you've been away from me. In the mirror, it's such a hurtful sight. Oh, I miss being Mrs. tonight. Oh, I miss being Mrs. tonight. Oh, and how I love them loving arms that once held me so tight. I took off my wedding band and put it on my right hand. I miss being Mrs. tonight.
GROSS: That's my guest, Loretta Lynn, with Jack White on guitar from the album "Van Lear Rose," which
GROSS: Jack White produced of Loretta Lynn songs in 2004. Your husband, who we've spoken a little bit about, died in 1996. And you didn't perform for a while after that. How has your life changed since he's been gone?
LYNN: Well, not for the better. I mean, I miss him so much, you know. He kind of kept things going like me recording. And he'd always tell me how good I was, you know. And that always helped a lot. And he would say, you know, we need to get a new record out or whatever. He always kept me moving. And it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have been singing, period, because he thought I could sing. And that's - he put me to work.
GROSS: You know, as so many people are, I think, kind of baffled a little bit by the relationship, because it seems in some ways to have been a very rocky relationship, and at the same time, you stayed with him throughout.
LYNN: Oh, we had a - I think we had a relationship. We fought one day, and we'd love the next. So, I mean, that - to me, that's a good relationship. If you can't fight and if you can't tell each other what you think, why, your relationship ain't much anyway.
GROSS: You don't need him anymore to tell him you're a good singer, right? I mean, you know that, right?
LYNN: Well. I don't know about that, but I try.
GROSS: It's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so very much.
LYNN: Been nice to talk to you, honey.
DAVIES: Loretta Lynn speaking with Terry Gross in 2010. Lynn has a new album, "Still Woman Enough." And a new expanded and updated version of her 1976 memoir, "Coal Miner's Daughter," has been released. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Father" starring Anthony Hopkins. This is FRESH AIR.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this interview, originally broadcast in 2010, says that Loretta Lynn was married at age 13, as Lynn wrote in her memoir, Coal Miner's Daughter. However, in 2012 The Associated Press reported that Lynn is three years older than she had stated and married a few months before she turned 16.]
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The Father" received six Oscar nominations this week, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins' lead performance as a man struggling with the onset of dementia. The film was directed and adapted by Florian Zeller from his own stage play. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There have been many fine films over the past several years about characters struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia like "Away From Her," "Still Alice" and the recent Colin Firth-Stanley Tucci drama "Supernova." But few of them have gone as deeply and unnervingly into the recesses of a deteriorating mind as "The Father," a powerful new chamber drama built around a mesmerizingly performance from Anthony Hopkins. At this point in his long career, Hopkins would seem to have exhausted his ability to surprise us, but his work here is nothing short of astonishing. He shows us a man whose mind has become a prison, and we're trapped in it right alongside him. His character, also named Anthony, is 80 years old and has dementia.
At the beginning of the movie, his daughter Anne, played by the superb Olivia Colman, stops by his London apartment to check on him. Her father's condition has taken a turn for the worse. And his fits of temper have become severe enough to send his latest live-in nurse packing. Anthony is stubborn and defiant and insists that he can manage on his own. But that's clearly not the case, given his habit of misplacing his things like the watch that keeps mysteriously vanishing from his wrist and his inability to remember names and faces, Anne's included. Anne soon hires a young nurse named Laura, played by Imogen Poots, who comes to the apartment to meet Anthony. The two seem to hit it off at first, laughing and joking while Anne nervously looks on.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FATHER")
IMOGEN POOTS: (As Laura) What did you do for a living?
ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Oh, I was a dancer.
POOTS: (As Laura) Were you?
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yes.
OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Anne) Dad.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What?
COLMAN: (As Anne) You were an engineer.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What do you know about it? Yes, tap dancing was my specialty.
POOTS: (As Laura) Really?
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) You seem surprised.
POOTS: (As Laura) Yeah, a little bit.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Why - don't you believe me? You find that difficult to imagine?
POOTS: (As Laura) Of course. It's just I've always loved tap dancing.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) You, really? Wow. I'm still great at it. I'll show you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING)
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Jolly good. Why are you laughing?
POOTS: (As Laura, laughing) Sorry. Sorry.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) I know. I know who she reminds me of.
COLMAN: (As Anne) Who?
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) It's Lucy, Lucy when she was younger.
COLMAN: (As Anne) Lucy?
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yeah, my other daughter. That's right. There's a resemblance, don't you think?
COLMAN: (As Anne) Maybe.
HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Yes. Yes, her unbearable habit of laughing inanely. I had you there, didn't I?
CHANG: Anthony may think he's pulled a fast one on Laura, but the more "The Father" goes on, the more it becomes clear that it's his own mind that's playing tricks on him. What makes the movie so unsettling is the way it wires us directly into his subjective experience so that the foundations of the story seem to shift at random from scene to scene. We're adrift in a sea of Anthony's memories. Each new plot development undermines the one before it. A man suddenly appears in the apartment, claiming to be Anne's husband, which is odd since just a few moments earlier, Anne seemed to be single. Anne goes out shopping for groceries. But when she returns, she's played not by Olivia Colman, but by another actress, Olivia Williams.
The apartment itself, brilliantly designed by Peter Francis, begins to shift of its own accord. You notice puzzling discrepancies. Wasn't there a lamp on that hallway table just a moment ago? Weren't those kitchen cabinets a completely different color? And suddenly realize that Anthony's mind is blurring different time frames together. At some point, it becomes unclear whether we're in Anthony's apartment or Anne's apartment, into which Anthony has been moved since he can no longer live on his own.
"The Father" is thus both a psychological detective story and a stealth haunted house movie. It's an exceedingly clever and polished piece of filmmaking, and it marks an impressive feature debut for the French writer-director Florian Zeller, adapting his own popular play with the veteran screenwriter Christopher Hampton. You can sense how well this material must have worked on stage, where it's easier to slip between layers of reality. But it works beautifully on screen, too. The general complaint about most stage-to-screen adaptations is that they wind up feeling too airless and claustrophobic. But those qualities are, if anything, a bonus in "The Father," deepening its portrait of cognitive entrapment.
Remarkably, none of the movie's dazzling surface tricks undermine the emotion at its core. The story in "The Father" may be scrambled, but it's also heartbreakingly simple. A man grows old and loses his memory, and his daughter, after a lifetime of love and devotion, must begin the long, agonizing process of saying goodbye. Hopkins could deliver this performance on an empty soundstage with no loss of impact. He shows us Anthony's struggle to keep his wits about him, the way he reaches for humor and then anger as a means of keeping the inevitable at bay. By the end, though, his every last defense has been stripped away. And Hopkins lays the character bare with a vulnerability I've rarely seen from him or any actor. It's a devastating performance and an impossible one to forget.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Father," which begins streaming on various platforms March 26. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new documentary about Marian Anderson, part of the PBS "American Experience" series. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "L'INCOMPRISE")
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has a review of a new film on the PBS series "American Experience" about the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. Lloyd says the film explores both Anderson's extraordinary artistry and the important place she holds in the civil rights movement.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. MATTHEW'S PASSION, BWV 244: ERBARME DICH")
MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing in German).
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: What I heard today, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini said the first time he heard American contralto Marian Anderson, one is privileged to hear once in a hundred years. And so Anderson came to be called the voice of the century. It's not an overstatement. Just hearing that rich, three-dimensional sound, both high and deep, is profoundly moving. But whether in Bach or Schubert, opera or spirituals, that voice also communicated the most heartbreaking and heart-easing feelings. Her exceptional qualities were more widely recognized in Europe, where, for the most part, her race was not a barrier. In the United States, she had to wait until she was nearly 58 years old before she finally sang her first opera. It was a landmark debut. Her role was the chilling fortune teller in Verdi's "A Masked Ball," a part previously sung only by white singers in dark makeup.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RE DELL'ABISSO AFFRETTATI")
ANDERSON: (Singing in Italian).
SCHWARTZ: It's Anderson's story more than her music making and how that story was inextricably bound up with American racism that's the subject of a powerful and timely new documentary called "Marian Anderson: The Voice Of Freedom," made for the PBS series "American Experience." Narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry from the original cast of "Hamilton" with helpful commentary by a group of musicologists and historians, all women, it tells the unlikely story of how a girl born to a working-class African American family in Philadelphia became one of our supreme artists. As a child singing in church, she was called the baby contralto. When she was 12, her father died after an accident at work. And she had to drop out of school to take care of her two younger sisters while her mother took multiple jobs. At the age of 17, she was encouraged by her mentor, the renowned Black tenor Roland Hayes, who heard her in church, to apply to the Philadelphia Musical Academy, but they refused to accept students of color. "The Voice Of Freedom" shows us that even Anderson's phenomenal international success couldn't override American racism and how she became a crucial, if initially reluctant, icon in the civil rights movement.
The central story of the documentary is the defining moment of Anderson's career. In 1939, after her triumph in Europe, Howard University invited her to give a concert in Washington, D.C., but the only venue for a major concert, Constitution Hall, was owned by an organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution. And like most of Washington, the DAR had a strict policy of segregation. Their refusal to make an exception for Anderson so outraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that she very publicly resigned her membership in the DAR. When Roosevelt wrote about it in her newspaper column, it became a national scandal.
Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, suggested a new plan, which immediately got the blessings of the Roosevelts and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes - a free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For Anderson's concert on that Easter Sunday of 1939, a fully integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial broke the attendance record, previously set by a Ku Klux Klan rally. And millions of listeners tuned in to NBC's national broadcast. Ickes himself introduced Anderson. Genius, he announced, has no color line.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANDERSON: (Singing) Land where my fathers died, land of the pigrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
SCHWARTZ: Marian Anderson had never intended to be a political figure. Despite the direct effect segregation had on her life and career, she continued to appear, like most Black performers, in segregated venues. What was regarded as her passivity alienated the younger generation of civil rights leaders. One of her concerts was actually boycotted by the NAACP. From then on, she sang only for integrated audiences and became a vigorous public spokesperson for civil rights. Listen to the humanity of her singing, and you know this had to be the inevitable outcome. It's not a coincidence that Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech at the exact same location as Anderson's historic Washington concert.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed "Marian Anderson: The Voice Of Freedom," now streaming on pbs.org/americanexperience and other platforms.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAMPIN'")
ANDERSON: (Singing) I've never been to heaven, but I've been told, tryin' to make heaven my home, that the streets up there are paved with gold, tryin' to make heaven my home.
I'm trampin', trampin', tryin' to make heaven my home.
DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, correcting the record on Lady Bird Johnson. We'll speak with writer Julia Sweig. She says the first lady, regarded as the genteel advocate of highway beautification, was really far more - a savvy political adviser to President Lyndon Johnson and an advocate of ambitious programs to protect the environment and fight urban blight. We'll listen to excerpts of Lady Bird's audio diaries and discuss Sweig's new book, "In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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