Dir: Debbie Allen. Featuring: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Treat Williams, Jenifer Lewis, Josh Segarra, Jeanine Mason, Mary Lane Haskell. PG, 98 mins.
This week, it was revealed that Dolly Parton helped to fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which clinical tests have shown is 94.5 per cent effective. She also has a film out on Netflix, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, in which she plays a literal guardian angel. That’s not so much serendipity as good old Dolly at work – a woman who has always found the most unexpected ways to bring hope and joy into the world. The film, directed by Debbie Allen, sees modern-day Scrooge, Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski), inherit the deed to her hometown from her late, wealthy father, only to sell the place so it can be knocked down and turned into a megamall. Its residents, including her childhood bestie Margeline (Jennifer Lewis), have until Christmas Eve to pack up and move out – unless Parton’s angel can sing enough country songs to change her mind.
The whole production is both endearing and wildly absurd. In one scene, Regina looks wistfully out of a window in her father’s home, reminiscing about childhood, when the Queen of Country magically appears – bejewelled, bedazzled and sitting on a cloud – to console her. Christmas on the Square frequently plays out like a piece of community theatre. Adapted from a stage play, and featuring 14 songs written by Parton, it’s a near-constant barrage of singing and dancing, so perpetually energetic that it borders on disorientating.
When we first meet Parton’s character, she’s in disguise, out in the town square asking for change (but, aha, not that kind of change!). Delicately wrapped in expensive-looking grey rags, and with a full-face of makeup, Parton looks a lot like Grizabella from Cats. A couple performs a song about their IVF treatment. Someone worries they have a brain tumour. A church congregation sing about the various ways they’d like to murder Regina: “Choke her!” “Throw her on the griddle!” “Rough her up a little!” Cue a life-threatening accident for Regina, where Parton ends up perched over her hospital bed.
It’s hard to figure out quite where Christmas on the Square is headed in any given moment, despite the film borrowing liberally from festive classics. Even the opening song declares: “This life isn’t wonderful, and your name isn’t George Bailey.” But its sincerity can’t be questioned and, occasionally, within all the chaos, the hearty comforts of Parton’s songwriting come shining through.
Christmas on the Square has an odd way of threading religion into its story. The local pastor (Josh Segarra) is called Christian (obviously) and a climactic twist involves a well-thumbed copy of the Bible. Thematically, though, it’s entrenched in a more universal, inclusive vision of goodwill, and the belief that the world can be healed by loving thy neighbour. And when Parton stares straight down the camera lens, as if she can see deep inside your soul, it really does seem that simple.