Dolly Parton And Friends
MPI Home Video
By all rights it just shouldn’t work. The set staging is like a nine-year old girl’s bedroom gone Vegas, the jokes and skits are beyond corny, the audience looks beamed in from another state (and perhaps era) and the guests wander from set to set, song to song with a confused look in their eyes. And yet, it’s Dolly fucking Parton, so it’s sublime. Gaudy, yes. But still sublime. Dolly Parton in one of her several primes — this one circa 1976/77 — when someone had the amazing idea to take this not-yet-crossover-star (already on the way to becoming one of the most bigger-than-life figures in first Nashville, then the world) and have her host a downhome variety show, playing host to a slew of Music Row’s, and elsewhere’s, greatest singing talents. Yeah, the idea was a corker, but that was it. The show looks as though the producers (is that concert impresario Bill Graham’s name I see displayed prominently?) didn’t want to spend more than say, five bucks on sets and cameras and costumes, so the burden of carrying this show, making it work and not look like a cheapo cash-in on fell squarely on the shoulders of Miss Parton.
And it’s Miss fucking Parton in her prime (wait, did I already say that), both visually and musically. The wigs are platinum blond to the point of blinding white, she was less thin and less surgeried than Dolly v.2, pounds of foundation and mascara, impossibly tight (yet still somehow, illogically demure) rhinestoned jumpsuits and countrygirl dresses and jeans and flannels and frilly blouses, with just an improbably tiny waist. And yet, she somehow carries it off to not only look completely natural and everyday (even though it’s like the yin to Poison Ivy Rorsach’s completely debauched yang) but totally innocent at the same time. Ye gods! But it all isn’t visual here — Dolly was also at the height of her performing and songwriting, “I Will Always Love You” was already tucked away securely in her garters, but she didn’t give a fuck, she busted out cover versions aplenty and would pick up a banjo or a guitar seemingly on a whim and pick like a motherfucker. (She was the total package. No wonder the White Stripes fell so utterly under her spell.)
And if the scripted banter is indeed unbearable, with Dolly and guests manfully plowing through piles of clunkers, well it works because Dolly just keeps on smiling and giggling like it’s the best time she’s ever had and that she’s completely in on the joke, and maybe you don’t even notice because goddamnit it’s Dolly Parton and whoever wants Dolly Parton to bomb in front of an audience is an asshole that I shouldn’t even be associating with at all.
The best part is watching each of the guests slowly fall in love with Dolly. It’s like the stages of grief. First they’re a little nervous and confused by this tarted-up angel joking and gushing like she’s been a fan forever, but then they start warming up when she goes quickly into the first number (usually a duet), by her first solo number, you can literally see the hearts forming in their eyes like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and from there it’s off to the races. Whatever costume, whatever corny joke, bring it on. They’re hers. And there’s just this wondrous naivete and innocence to the whole show that’s totally infectious. Shit I could even accept and come to anticipate her descending from a butterfly swing at the beginning of each show.
And what a lineup of guests! Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt show up right off the bat and set the bar almost unforgivably high with easy camaraderie and some utterly righteous three-part harmonizing on one another’s songs. Poet Rod McKuen stumbles in looking like a backwoods Ian Curtis, clad in denim, with close-cropped hair and beard and an air of rootless melancholy, to tell some stories and whisper some songs and when she says she loves him, before his sudden and appropriate exit, man it’s heartbreaking. Ronnie Milsapp shows up to try and outflash Dolly, and he comes damn close. But c’mon man, everyone else is really just an opening act for Dolly Parton’s true significant other… Kenny Rogers! And he doesn’t disappoint, hamming it up during Dolly’s rendition of “Knock Three Times” by banging pipes together, clad in a light green Nudie getup with magnificently feathered hair and beard and shades. They vamp fondly during “Spanish Eyes” and by the end the audience is sighing contentedly… surely this must be a love for the ages?
The song choices are all over the map, with Dolly and her crack band of Nashville pros really flexing their performing muscles. “Bad Leroy Brown,” “Joshua,” “Proud Mary,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Rhinstone Cow…girl”, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain”… christ. And I challenge you to find Dolly wearing the same outfit for more than three minutes a go. Country girl, lady of nobility, British redcoat, streetwise harlot, jumpsuit enthusiast, it’s a dizzying array. Every episode ends with a closeup of Dolly looking straight into the camera and singing an unaffected version of “I Will Always Love You.” And forget all the Bodyguard soundtrack, Whitney Houston, radio overload bullshit, this song is the perfect lullaby to end the night.
Bonus bits on the DVD include two songs by a proto-Dolly on Porter Wagoner’s variety show. One is a more somber spiritual number, but the other is a lightning quick bluegrass-goes-rockabilly raveup with the entire musical cast of the show gathered around one bloody mic that was just outrageous fun, reminding me of the drunken rollicking of the Bad Seeds, but so much… more.
MPI Home Video: www.mpihomevideo.com