Dolly Parton has been an icon so many decades, she seems to have almost nothing more to prove.
Yet at age 74, she is seemingly everywhere, a shining beacon who cuts through the drudgery, divisiveness and madness of 2020.
The country legend just came out with both a Christmas album (“A Holly Dolly Christmas”) and a book (“Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics”). She has a new Christmas special airing on CBS Dec. 6. And she donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which has helped the pharmaceutical company Moderna develop a coronavirus vaccine.
All 14 songs in the film were written by Parton. The familiar story evokes “A Christmas Carol” and revolves around the theme of forgiveness.
Christine Baranski of “The Good Fight” fame plays bitter real estate mogul Regina. During the opening musical number, featuring 75 extras and 11 cast members, Regina informs businesses on a small town square that she is evicting them all and turning the space into a mall.
Not surprisingly, Parton’s spangly angel eventually softens Regina’s heart and guides her into a much better space.
We spoke with Sam Haskell, Parton’s former agent and a longtime close friend of hers who was executive producer on the film and several previous Parton-related TV projects including her 2019 song anthology “Heartstrings,” which is also on Netflix.
“Dolly and I finish each other’s sentences,” Haskell said. “We’re so compatible. We get along so well. She’s the godmother to my children. We’ve known each other for 35 years. It’s easy for us to do things together.”
Haskell had written a successful memoir in 2009 and as a sequel, he thought of writing a fictional Christmas story. When he told Parton about the idea, she scoffed and said he should turn it into a musical. On her own, over the years, she wrote the music. Last year, Parton and other singers performed a 45-minute version of “Christmas on the Square” before Netflix executives.
“Netflix executives bought it in the room,” Haskell said.
He quickly hired Emmy-winning choreographer, dancer and producer Debbie Allen to direct. And he convinced Baranski to play the lead. Not that it took much convincing. He recalled she said, “You had me at Dolly Parton.”
He chose her because he knew Baranski would play the brittle, angry part well. “But she’s got a heart of gold. There’s no sweeter person who walks on the face of this earth,” Haskell said.
"Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square" features Christine Baranski and Jeanine Mason. CR: Netflix
Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
The film was shot over six weeks, and Haskell lauded Allen for her aplomb amid typical delays like a power outage, a bad storm and air conditioning failing. “I was right behind her watching every shot,” he said. “I marveled at her ability to keep everybody moving.”
The square was built out on a massive set at EUE Screen Gems in Atlanta, which has also been home to films such as “Flight” and the latter two “Hunger Games” films as well as fellow Netflix products “Stranger Things” and Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” out the same weekend on Netflix. They found a lovely home near Ponce City Market to shoot interior scenes of Regina’s home.
“Christmas on the Square” also involved months of post-production magic to give Parton that visual angelic sparkle and create convincing backdrops for the square. The film was in the can by January, weeks before the pandemic began. (Netflix’s ability to work so far ahead enabled the streaming service to keep fresh product coming out of the pipeline the past eight months.)
Haskell cannot wait for the public to check the movie out and hopes “Christmas on the Square" becomes a perennial favorite.
“It’s a big, fun, fabulous musical,” he said. “It’s what this country needs right now. The musical is going to make people turn everything else off for two hours and just enjoy joy.”
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years.