Album Review: Dolly Parton – Dumplin’ (Original Soundtrack)

The new Netflix movie ‘Dumplin’ begins with the heroine Willowdean Dickson in her car, singing along to Dolly Parton’s debut single ‘Dumb Blonde’, a song about subverting the expectations of those who judge you unfairly on appearances. The film, based on Julie Murphy’s wonderful novel, concerns a plus size teen who decides to enter a beauty contest as a protest and finds out she really is pageant material after all.

The novel hinges almost entirely on the main character’s obsession with Dolly Parton – a love she inherited from her aunt Lucy. Her fandom gives her comfort and confidence to be herself. Without Dolly’s music, and her inspirational aphorisms, there would be no love, no joy and certainly no movie.

The producers of the film needed Dolly to make this project work and she has risen to the challenge (as if that was ever in doubt). Dolly has written new songs for the soundtrack as well as rerecording some of her classic songs with other female artists. Dumplin‘ was written, directed and produced by women and Dolly honours that in her choice of collaborators and producer Linda Perry.

The soundtrack album does not follow the chronological order of the film and instead begins with a new version of ‘Here I Am’ (originally released on Dolly’s Coat of Many Colors album) featuring Sia. When I first saw Sia’s name on the list I had my doubts, since I’ve always found her voice to be like overchewed bubblegum, but I am pleasantly surprised to report that this is in fact one of the best duets on the album. Dolly makes this song sound as fresh as if it was written yesterday. The choice to lead with this song makes sense as it also encapsulates the themes of the movie – take me for who I am and l will show you what love really means. In the film the song soundtracks a difficult moment between Willowdean and her mother Rosie, played with heart and grace by Jennifer Aniston.

The duet with Elle King, ‘Holdin’ On To You’ is a bluesy bar rocker duet – you can just imagine the two blondes knocking back the drinks and raising hell. This is one of the duets which doesn’t actually feature that prominently in the film, which mainly favours the original versions and Dolly’s new songs. You have to think then that the choice to include these duets in the soundtrack album was partly made in order to broaden Dolly’s audience reach, an approach which demonstrates her team’s savvy understanding of social media and the digital age.

Miranda Lambert shines on the ‘Dumb Blonde’ duet, with the kind of wise tone which suggests this one should immediately go into her live repertoire. Nice to hear how many of these songs use pedal steel and sound authentically country too, like If We Don’t featuring Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent.

The first original on the soundtrack is ‘Girl in the Movies’, which this week received a deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song. On first listen it may seem odd to hear such an accomplished, successful woman in her seventies singing about being a girl whose had enough of her dreams being shattered, but this song is more than just about Dumplin‘ – I read it as an insight into Dolly’s world right now. Sure she may have achieved more than any of us ever will, but she has unfinished business in the film industry, as seen by her recent Netflix deal. She still hasn’t won that Oscar or seen all of her projects become successful. Superstars like Dolly become legends because they never stop striving and dreaming for more.

The other originals are more varied in quality. Red Shoes takes a symbol from the film as inspiration and Dolly sings from Willowdean’s perspective. Her vibrato sounds as vital as ever, even if the melody is less memorable. On ‘Who’ Dolly imagines how Willowdean feels in her fledgling relationship, moving from fear and uncertainty to joy and acceptance. Push and Pull is a stronger song musically and addresses complex relationships like those seen in the film between mother and daughter (the movie’s stars Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald join Dolly on this song). Why is a duet with Mavis Staples and it is a treat to hear these legends sing together on an uplifting song about acceptance and love.

The slowed down version of Here You Come Again, with its orchestral reworking is a beautiful moment, both in the film and the soundtrack. The name Willa Amai will be unfamiliar to most but the young protege of producer Perry acquits herself well. Dorothy, another artist who has links with Perry, joins Dolly and Macy Gray on Two Doors Down. It is an odd trio but the strength of the song remains as potent as ever. Jolene appears in a newly reworked version, which has the groove replaced with darkly yearning strings.

The deluxe version of the album includes a number of Dolly classics and Here You Come Again is remixed with an extra level of pizzazz which can only be appreciated by watching the film. Two of Dolly’s lesser known songs are also included at the end of the soundtrack, both being used at pivotal moments in the film. Better Get To Livin, from Backwoods Barbie, is the catchy soundtrack to the awesome drag queen makeover scene and contains some real inspirational truths from Dolly. The final song is Dolly’s gospel number High and Mighty from her 1993 album Slow Dancing With The Moon, which is sung by Maddie Baillio in a film-stealing performance as Millie Michalchuck.

In the musical world of Dumplin’ only Dolly Parton songs exist – she is on every radio, there with the main character in every moment and is the soundtrack to the final show-stopping performances. The movie’s message is Dolly’s too: find out who you are and do it on purpose.

In 2018 I started my project to review all of Dolly Parton’s solo albums in order. Here is a link to a list of the albums I have reviewed so far:

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