By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Monday, December 7, 2015
A week after NBC gave the world a surprisingly well-received live version of "The Wiz," the network is adding another Christmas present under the TV tree Thursday: "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors."
It's a spiritual tearjerker of a film, shot in Conyers and Covington over the summer, that focuses on the country legend's childhood in 1955 in the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains. It airs Thursday at 9 p.m.
"It's a story of family, faith, hope and dreams becoming reality," said executive producer Sam Haskell, who was Parton's agent for many years while at the William Morris Agency. "Dolly's confident. She's secure in who she is. She's never turned her back on how she grew up and where she came from. She's a Tennessee girl through and through."
[UPDATE: The film pulled in an impressive 13 million viewers Thursday night! That was bigger than "The Wiz Live" though the audience skewed significantly older, which is no surprise.)]
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During the shoot, Parton herself was unable to make it to set. She was too busy. "But I talked to her every day," Haskell said. The opening and closing of the film features a present-day Parton talking directly to the audience at her popular theme park Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN.
"I would love to give a gift for you," Parton says in the opening moments of the film. "My favorite song I've ever written tells a true story from my childhood about a little coat that my mama made for me. She called it my 'Coat of Many Colors.' "
Alyvia Alyn Lind is a revelation as the spunky 9-year-old Parton. She was one of 200 girls tested for the crucial role. "When Dolly saw her test, she started to cry," Haskell said. " She said, 'I feel like I'm looking at myself all those years ago.' She was pure magic."
Parton is one of 12 children, part of a poor but loving family in a tiny cabin. Her father (played by Haskell's ex-client and former child actor Rick Schroder) is a tobacco sharecropper who struggles with religion. As shown in the film, the Partons suffer a major loss when one of the children dies at birth. Parton's mom, played with nobility and grace by country singer and former Atlantan Jennifer Nettles, falls into a deep depression.
When her mom makes Parton a coat from bits and pieces of other clothing, the coat becomes a symbol of hope and forgiveness. As her father in the film notes to Parton, "it was sewn with love. It's like with every stitch, she was mending our broken hearts. Your mama's heart holds all the love of our family. And her heart's strong. But it can be broken. So be careful with her heart, Dolly."
Indeed, while Lind's Parton is the bright sparkle in the film, her deeply religious mom is the rock.
"It was one of the most rewarding experiences," Nettles told AJC music writer Melissa Ruggieri in October. "As a storyteller, it was so fun. As a singer, you have 3 1/2 minutes to tell a story, to get the arc of the emotion. But this allowed me to experience it over a long period of time."
Haskell noted that this was the acting debut for Nettles, who has been part of the hit-making machine duo Sugarland for many years though the group is currently on hiatus. "We just fell in love with her," he said.
He also raved about the month the production company spent in Georgia shooting the film, calling "the entire experience incredible. We found this wonderful location Gaither Plantation in Covington. We were able to shoot Parton's home, schoolhouse and church there. The rest of the interiors were shot in a warehouse in Conyers."
There are plans to do future films based on other Parton songs, including one in the works with NBC using Parton's signature tune "Jolene."
Haskell hopes to come back to Georgia to shoot that film as well. "We loved every minute of our time here, despite a lot of big mosquitoes," he said. "We had a lot of rain but we dealt with it!"
"Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors," 9 p.m. Thursday, NBC