Anyone looking for proof that Canadian cinema is a mongrel beast need look no further than The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom. The director of this eccentric first feature, Tara Johns, describes herself as an assimilated Anglo Quebecer, “born in Calgary, deflowered in Vancouver and indoctrinated in Montreal.” Her movie is about an 11-year-old girl in a Prairie suburb who imagines she’s Dolly Parton’s adopted daughter, and bikes across the border to look for her. Shot in Quebec and Manitoba, it’s a Canadian film hitched to the marquee value of an American star who never appears onscreen.
For Johns, it was a gamble. She spent two years writing and rewriting a script that hinged entirely on the participation of Parton without knowing whether the country music star would allow her name or music to be used. “It was a chicken-egg thing,” the 46-year-old director told me last week. “I couldn’t go after Dolly until I had a pretty solid script. Without her, I don’t know what I would have done—maybe changed the name to Pierre Trudeau or something.”
But thanks to a contact from a Canadian producer who had filmed a documentary about Parton’s literacy foundation, Johns sent her script to the singer, who faxed back an effusive letter just before heading out on tour. “It had a huge scrawling letterhead, ‘Dolly Parton’ written in cursive. She said, ‘I spent the weekend reading your script, I’m so flattered,’ and on and on. She just gave me everything.” For a nominal sum, Parton handed over the rights to use nine of her songs in the film, including four original recordings and five that would be re-recorded by Canadian artists—Nelly Furtado, the Wailin’ Jennys, Martha Wainwright, Coral Egan and Franco-Manitoban singer Geneviève Toupin. “No Canadian film could afford to buy those publishing rights at the going rate,” says Johns, whose movie cost just over $3 million. Parton also recorded two chunks of voice-over narration for the picture, including the pièce de résistance that graces its ending.
The movie began as a whim. Johns had just finished shooting a documentary and was mulling over some ideas for a fictional drama when she caught a CBC Radio interview with Parton. “She was talking about how she got started in the ’60s and ’70s, making her way in this patriarchal old boys’ club,” says the director. “I’d known that she’d written the song Whitney Houston made famous, I Will Always Love You. But I had no idea that this woman who looked like a Barbie doll was such a prototypical feminist. She had her feet so firmly planted on the ground.”
The other hook for the script was a memory from the director’s childhood. Her mother went to school with Joni Mitchell. “When I was listening to the Joni Mitchell Blue album and waiting for my boobs to grow, I fantasized that I was her daughter,” says Johns, referring to the child Mitchell gave up for adoption and sang about so wistfully in Little Green.
To find her young lead, Johns conducted Canada-wide casting sessions, but didn’t like the results. At the last minute, she posted an open casting call on the film’s Facebook page. One of four respondents, Vancouver’s Julia Stone, flew to Montreal with her mother on air miles and nailed the audition. To play the girl’s Manitoba mom, Johns bucked pressure to cast an American name and chose a bilingual Quebec star, Macha Grenon (Barney’s Version)—who’s also the partner of Oscar-nominated Incendies director Denis Villeneuve.
Parton’s voice-over was recorded in Nashville. “That was the end of my rainbow,” says Johns. “She came into the studio in a jade-green top with a deep neckline, tight leggings, high high heels. I was really nervous. She said, ‘What do you want from me?’ I said, ‘Be yourself.’ She said, ‘No, I like to be directed.’ ”
They hit it off, but when it came time to dub a French version of the movie, its Quebec broadcaster insisted Parton’s voice-over be dubbed, not subtitled. “They tried to cast someone to dub her and it was a disaster,” says Johns. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and Dolly Parton was not erased from the movie that bears her name. Only in Canada.