No one will dispute that Dolly Parton is a great entertainer. Her songs, from “Jolene” to “I Will Always Love You,” are simply written but have resonated deeply with generations of music lovers — and not just country music lovers — as she has the ability to speak about her own experience in a way that has universal appeal.
Her decision to turn some of those signature songs into full blown, holiday-themed TV movies may satisfy her fan base — last year’s “Coat of Many Colors” racked up more than 15 million viewers for NBC — but this year’s installment, which has the clunky title “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love,” proves that the singer’s life story, when told by others, delivers clichés by the carton and treacle by the truckload.
After an earnest introduction by Parton, who stands in front of her lucrative theme park “Dollywood,” singing a few bars from “Circle of Love” and revealing that, at age 70, her clear soprano is fine condition, the movie starts. We are transported back in time — 1955, to be exact — to Locust Ridge, Tenn., where Dolly’s parents, Robert and Avie (Ricky Schroder and Jennifer Nettles) are raising their huge brood in a small cabin and facing the prospect of a grim Christmas. Mrs. Parton has saved up enough money to buy one present for each of her eight children, but what Mr. Parton wants most is to buy his wife the wedding ring he could never afford to give her. Avie tells him not to worry. “After eight kids, I’m about as married as I can get,” she says with characteristic good humor.
The Partons don’t need much to keep them happy and scenes of them singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with Avie playing the mandolin and Dolly (Alyvia Alyn Lind, too cute by half) the guitar ring true. The movie’s main plot, in which Robert and young Dolly come up with a plan to get that wedding ring, seems contrived, especially as it leads to a series of near-disasters that can only be erased by another series of convenient miracles. In quick succession, we have a blizzard that traps Avie and the kids in the cabin without heat or food, a baby who takes sick and a mine explosion that strands Robert far away from home. In one of the film’s many moments of homespun hokum, the real Dolly Parton says in a voiceover, “Our tears froze on our faces.”
Yes, she really says that.
We have grown accustomed to holiday films that overplay their hand, ultimately alienating viewers with gooey sentimentality in a desperate attempt to reassure its audience that there is no place like home and love will conquer all (even grinding poverty), and this “Circle of Love” is no exception. While the filmmakers behind the Parton Christmas franchise (among them veteran daytime soap writer Pamela K. Long) have sprinkled some genuine moments in the story and made a great hire in casting Nettles as the tenacious Parton matriarch, they have inadvertently made their subject, the charismatic singer herself, into someone whose life you’d rather not hear about anymore.
Sometimes, a story is best told in a three-minute song.