Early in “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” NBC’s dramatization of Dolly Parton’s song about her impoverished youth in Tennessee, the 9-year-old Dolly is hiding alone in the barn, talking to God: “I’d rather be plain ugly than just plain,” she tells Him. Then she turns to the mirror and applies thick layers of lipstick, eye shadow, and rouge before rushing off to Sunday services. She looks, according to her angry mother as she wipes off the gunk, like a “harlot.”
That’s our lovable Dolly, now 69, whose abundant makeup remains a linchpin of her brand of countrified glamour, a kind of war paint that she applies as an entertainment-industry heavy-hitter, and a model for drag queens near and far. She has always worn her look, a mixture of televangelist garishness and exaggerated femininity, with an appealing amount of pride and humor, and the makeup scene is an affectionate nod to that. Parton herself introduces the movie, which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m., while sitting on a bench at her theme park, Dollywood, wearing fake eyelashes that are weighty enough to keep her eyes at half-mast.
Parton has talked and sung with great fondness about her childhood in the Great Smoky Mountains, where she grew up as part of a family with, ultimately, 12 children. She created Dollywood there in the mid-1980s as a moneymaking operation, of course, but she also built it as a monument to the region and as a much-needed local employer. That sentimental love for rural Tennessee is all over “Coat of Many Colors,” which plays like a long-lost episode of “The Waltons” in which Jennifer Nettles and Ricky Schroder have stepped in as Ma and Pa. It’s a romanticized view of the past, to put it mildly, and it’s as sticky sweet as the caramel apple cider you might find at Dollywood.
It’s also myth-making that aims straight for the heart and self-promotion that aims straight for the wallet. But I don’t begrudge the ever-endearing Dolly Parton her marketing skills, and I suspect you don’t either.
The focus of the story is on the coat, which Dolly’s mother has sewn together from scraps of fabric after a family tragedy. Dolly wears the coat to school, gets bullied because it is so gaudy, makes a new friend of an old enemy, and watches her parents battle over her father’s unwillingness to go to church. He dutifully drives his clan there every Sunday, so they can pray with Dolly’s preacher grandfather (Gerald McRaney), but he refuses to step inside. Themes involving Christianity, including the link between Dolly’s coat and the one given to Joseph by his father in the Bible, are front and center in Pamela K. Long’s script.
If you think the movie is going to strike a psychological note and turn Dolly’s coat into a symbol of her adult love of the ornate, you’d be mistaken. This is old-school faith-based programming from start to finish.
As little Dolly, Alyvia Alyn Lind is adorable and talented enough to portray Dolly’s desire for attention without making it seem bratty. As her mother, Nettles brings the necessary earnestness without rubbing our noses in it. And Schroder, as the father who has a few things to learn about the afterlife, wears a pair of overalls like he was born in them.
DOLLY PARTON’S COAT
OF MANY COLORS
Starring Alyvia Alyn Lind, Jennifer Nettles, Ricky Schroder, Gerald McRaney. On NBC, Thursday,