Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Director: Francis Whately
Man Alive Productions / BBC / Netflix
Dolly Parton is hosting a victory lap for herself. She’s always been a great and tireless self-promoter that understood the power of your personality as your brand long before ‘storytelling’ became a buzzword – but right now she’s leading a self-mythologising tribute session that has arrived so swiftly as to raise concerns she’s about to bow out. Is retirement on the way? In the last year there’s been this brilliant must-hear podcast, a set of fictionialised films based on various songs for Netflix and now this (almost career-spanning) documentary.
I can’t get enough of Dolly. But I wonder if this is a late burst before there isn’t very much more to give.
Well, anyway, Dolly Parton: Here I Am should be appointment-viewing in your house, particularly if you live with a Dolly sceptic or if you yourself know about her reputation but don’t really know the story.
It’s hagiographic in that the talking heads have all been immaculately chosen and none speak out of turn, oddly the 1980s just disappear after 9 to 5 – we don’t get to hear about any of her other film roles or some of the big pop successes of that decade or the creation of “Dollywood” – instead we get the early story, the mountain-soul and white-trash years, the duets with Porter Wagoner, and hints that he wasn’t such a nice guy. We see Dolly’s amazing chemistry with…frankly anyone that enters her orbit. We hear the tiny bit about her husband Carl that is all we are ever allowed to hear.
And then the hits start coming. Jolene and I Will Always Love You are looked at in detail of course.
And this sets up the obvious theme of Dolly as songwriter. A great and prolific composer.
But I love that Dolly knew how to spot when a well-timed cover could set her up, could allow her a platform.
Dumb Blonde was written for her and when she recorded it – made it a signature early hit – she had the material in her back-pocket to capitalise. That was her set up for the 1960s and into the 70s. All that hard work and talent there to draw on after opening the door with a canny country hit.
Flash forward to the end of the 70s and she does it again. This time the cover – it sounds like a Dolly song, it is, for all intents and purposes, A Dolly Song but again it’s a cover – Here You Come Again. This moves her into the pop charts and sets her up for the late 70s/early 80s.
It’s a shame that this documentary doesn’t delve into the troughs, is only interested in the peaks. But then again when we think of Dolly we do tend to think of the peaks I guess…
Nice to have the late 90s/early 00s trilogy of bluegrass albums examined – particularly since the film does acknowledge that these were no great commercial success. But, again, with Dolly it’s always about the brand-building. And these albums were stepping stones in the rebuild.
If you already know the story you won’t find a whole heap here but for casual fans and for any uninformed detractors this is a must.
The power of her personal brand, her skills as a writer, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and all-around force – smart, funny, sexy – is so obvious here and well examined without feeling like anything is over-egged. She’s a class act, and though this is no great even-handed feat of filmmaking it’s the reminder we need and that she deserves. So for that it gets a big tick. Recommended.
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