Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings review – country legend sells us a bum steer

This rhinestone-studded schmaltzfest on Netflix inspired by the star’s greatest songs is a terrible misstep. What she was thinking we will never know

Dolly Parton wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You in the same night. The same night. She wrote 9 to 5 while she was bored in her trailer during the filming of, well, 9 to 5 then came out and sang it to her co-stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, using her long red fingernails as percussion. She refused (regretfully) to let Elvis cover I Will Always Love You because his manager, Colonel Parker, demanded half the publishing rights and Dolly does not relinquish the rights to her songs. Not then, right at the start of her career; not now, not ever. She owns everything pertinent to every one of them, with the possible exception of the first she ever wrote, Little Tiny Tassletop. It was about the dolly her father had made Parton, the fourth of 12 children living in a one-room cabin in the Smoky Mountains, out of a corn cob. That was in 1951 and she was five.

Every Dolly fan has these facts inscribed on their heart (along with black loathing for Porter Wagoner, the man who gave her her start and thought that entitled him to have his “girl singer” stay with him for ever). Every non-fan should be apprised of them as well, so that they may start the short journey from ignorance to adoration and meet us all at Locust Ridge for the annual diamante jamboree. She is a phenomenon, a role model musically and philanthropically (her Imagination Library charity sent out its 100 millionth children’s book last year), a honky tonk angel, an eagle when she flies and altogether a legend.

But even Homer nods, and the creator of over 3,000 songs delivered unto us via 44 Country Top 10 albums, 107 Hot Country Songs-charting singles and more awards than is immediately calculable, has also created Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.

This eight-part anthology series for Netflix showcases “the stories, memories and inspirations behind some of Parton’s most beloved songs”. And it is … exactly that. It fulfils the description. There has, technically, been no misrepresentation. The eight episodes include stories based on Jolene (which includes the flirtation with a red-headed bank teller that Parton’s husband Carl indulged in and which sparked the composition of the hit); Down from Dover (you don’t pitch a series called Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings and not put in the one about the pregnant girl who waits in vain for her lover to return and marry her); plus Sugar Hill, Cracker Jack and These Old Bones (bluegrass contingent: REPRESENT!).

What none of them has – not even Jolene, which actually has Dolly in it playing the owner of a juke joint who takes a young, motherless singer under her wing – is a scintilla of the wit, energy, humour, camp, glory or fizz of Parton. Each one is a squeeze of pure schmaltz from an industrial tube of the stuff. Jolene is the tale of a sexy young woman – an empowered manic pixie dream girl – who is befriended by an older married lady and helps to invigorate her marriage while they teach each other intergenerational life lessons along the way. The father of Down from Dover’s illegitimate baby is a black student who impregnates the white preacher’s daughter and enlists for Vietnam without knowing he is going to be a daddy. By the time he gets back minus half a leg, the baby has died but the preacher has overcome his racism so everything will be all right now. These Old Bones has Kathleen Turner playing the wise old woman on the hill, and I am not quite sure how that turns out because my hearing and vision were impaired by the lumps of scenery she was biting off and flinging round the set.

Each episode appears to have been brought in for roughly half the cost it must take to make one of Dolly’s cantilevered stage costumes, and none of that has gone on feeding the monkeys who typed the script. Only primates in the very last stages of malnutrition could have let lines such as: “He has super-strong hands that really help with chord progressions,” or (Jolene’s epiphany about the wife of her lover): “I was cheating her – as a woman!” out of the office.

What the scripts lack, the actors try to make up for with wry looks, lip-biting and – if trying to be sexy – constant gentle undulation. But everything is terrible, and not even bad enough to be good.

It does not matter. ’Tis a tiny misstep, a bagatelle of meh alongside the greatness and the gloriousness that is Dolly. Quite what she was thinking here we may never know, but long, long may she reign.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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