Times Film Critic

Love whom you will among country singers, there’s no sound to match that of the great Patsy Cline--that throbbing catch, that growl that slips into a yodel. It’s the raw, full-throttle voice of a woman who seems to meet life head on, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other.

Patsy Cline does just that in Karel Reisz’s “Sweet Dreams” (Egyptian, Westwood) , in which Jessica Lange plays the scrappy ‘60s singer with sweet ferocity. “You want to be Kitty Wells, don’t you?” a record producer asks her. “Hell no,” Cline shoots back, “I want to be Hank Williams.”

Damned if she doesn’t get her wish. Cline--whose own recordings are used throughout “Sweet Dreams”--sings the Hank Williams standard “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” with the same mournful veracity.


Patsy Cline had a hard and desperately short life. She loved a man (played with matching intensity by Ed Harris) who was not wrong but not right enough for her, and she died before she truly had her fair share of what she had worked for. But what Patsy Cline left behind in 1963 is still vibrantly alive today.

If you come to “Sweet Dreams” hoping for the richness and scope of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (in which Cline was a minor character), you’re in trouble. Faced with the violent trajectory of his subject’s life, screenwriter Robert Getchell (“Bound for Glory,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) has told it like a country love song, joyful or mournful by turns, not like a musical biography. Most of all, he’s hampered by the actual facts of Cline’s life, by a career that flourished--but would have soared had she lived longer--and by a love story that darkened and soured with time.

But within these limitations, Getchell has written with bite and compassion and Reisz seems to understand the shape of life in these small West Virginia and Tennessee towns. Patsy and her stalwart mother (played with verve and forbearance by Ann Wedgeworth) have a rare relationship: teasing, wrangling, sugar and sass; a different kind of teasing and a volatile climate seems always to exist between Patsy and her Charlie.

Lange and Harris, dangerously well-matched, give us lovers whom only success could sunder. Their pivotal slow dance outside the roadhouse, with its prophetic rainbow sign, may not have the erotic charge of Harris with Amy Madigan in “Alamo Bay” (in this instance alone, Reisz keeps Robbie Greenberg’s fluid camera too far at bay), but their scenes of baiting and battling have an awful accuracy.

And there is Cline’s voice in at least 10 songs, tumbling out profligately as she struggles up from singing in school auditoriums and during drive-in intermissions to the “Arthur Godfrey Show” and the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. In Ann Roth’s giddily fine costumes, Lange attacks these numbers with a real sense of Cline’s raucous, outgoing style, so much so that you almost forget that the voice is not her own. Some of the songs have been re-balanced with more modern arrangements behind Cline’s voice. Others, like her slow version of “Crazy” or “She’s Got You” or “Sweet Dreams,” are untouched. Possibly only the purists can tell the difference. ‘SWEET DREAMS’

An HBO Pictures presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners, released by Tri-Star. Producer Bernard Schwartz. Director Karel Reisz. Screenplay Robert Getchell. Co-producer Charles Mulvehill. Camera Robbie Greenberg. Production design Albert Brenner. Editor Malcolm Cooke. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Charles Gross. Music consultant Gregg Berry. Producer of Patsy Cline songs Owen Bradley. Choreographer Susan Scanlan. Art director David M. Haber. With Jessica Lange, Ed Harris, Ann Wedgeworth, David Clennon, P. J. Soles.


Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13).