Dolly Parton, the Tennessee songbird, has made a television movie out of the coat of rags her mama made for her, back in Locust Ridge, and of the song she later wrote about it. Like that song, it is called “Coat of Many Colors,” but it is many times longer and more involved than its musical inspiration, which gets its job done in less than three minutes.
Premiering Thursday on NBC, “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,” is literally framed as a holiday special, with Parton, who also narrates, appearing before and after, in holly-berry red, sitting in an unhitched sleigh on the seasonally decorated grounds of Dollywood, her self-referential theme park. But, warmth of feeling and occasional invocations of Jesus notwithstanding, it is not a Christmas tale.
The film is set in Parton’s own Smoky Mountains childhood, which, as in the many songs she has written about it, is presented as alternately, even simultaneously, idyllic and impoverished -- “The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad,” to take the title of another Parton song. Despite myriad challenges that fill out these two hours -- poverty, drought, worms on the tobacco leaves, bullies at school, the loss of a child, depression, marital alienation and family planning -- it’s the idyllic that lingers.
Like Parton’s music, it manages to be somehow clear- and misty-eyed at once, a mix of the natural and the sentimental. As a mischievous innocent whose misadventures bind the film’s adults together and the lens that allows them to see each other straight, little Dolly is not a hoot and a holler from the kind of parts Shirley Temple played, even farther back in history; as regards Alyvia Alyn Lind, who plays her, the words “adorable moppet” are not far off the mark.
As her mother, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, a country singer by trade, does good work, not merely for a novice; and, as her father, Rick Schroder, once an adorable moppet himself, is easy and serious. Although the film is often obvious and predictable, they keep it on the right side of cloying.
Written by Pamela K. Long (“Guiding Light,” “One Life to Live”) and directed by Stephen Herek (who made “Mr. Holland’s Opus” long ago, and others things since), and shot in Georgia, down the road apiece from the place it’s set, it’s a handsome piece, with some sweet performances. If it tends to meander a bit through many subplots and episodes, Long -- a soap opera writer, after all -- does manage to bridge the titular business from first scene to last. The outline, which does not amount to a spoiler, runs something like this: Girl gets coat, girl loves coat, coat is mocked, girl hates coat -- also mother, also God -- girl loves coat (mother, God.)
Similarly, the ongoing question of whether Parton’s daddy is going to come under the roof of the church where his father-in-law (Gerald McRaney, typically solid) preaches, can be seen as one of domestic devotion as much as one of Christian revelation. (It’s a real enough situation.) As much as the shape of the film drives toward an expected end, it also seems to support his independence of mind.
Much of Long’s best writing -- again, not surprising, given her background -- occurs in the scenes between Parton’s parents as they work out their difficulties and differences, and Schroder and Nettles take their measure nicely.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd.