October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

Jessica Lange checks in with another incandescent performance in this film biography of Patsy Cline, the country singer who died in a 1963 plane crash en route to her home in Nashville. Cline was on the verge of a major crossover career, and thanks to her legacy on record, including such hits as I Fall to Pieces, Crazy, Walkin’ After Midnight and Sweet Dreams, she has achieved cult status since her death. Lange, bedecked in wigs and glitter, is sultry, nervy, delicate and altogether amazing as Cline. No singer, Lange mouths the words while Patsy’s throaty wail (from various recordings) flows heartbreakingly from the sound track. Lange’s lipsynching is expert, but it’s the way she (not the script) gets at what’s burning inside her character that makes the film more than a country version of TV’s Puttin’ on the Hits. Still, Sweet Dreams is haunted by a ghost that undercuts it at almost every turn. The ghost is not Cline’s but that of Coal Miner’s Daughter, the superb 1980 film in which Oscar winner Sissy Spacek acted and sang the role of Loretta Lynn, Patsy’s protégée (wonderfully acted and sung then by Beverly D’Angelo). With an evocative screenplay by Tom Rickman, Daughter uncovered the country roots that inspired Lynn to build an original musical style. Sweet Dreams deals only with the last six years of Cline’s life, and Robert (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) Getchell’s script skimps on musical passion in favor of the achingly familiar domestic variety. Much of the film is taken up by Cline’s bickering with her lusty, abusive second husband, Charlie Dick, played by Ed Harris, a fine actor who may now have impersonated one too many cheatin’ rednecks (Places in the Heart, Swing Shift, Alamo Bay). Director Karel (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) Reisz leans hard on the Lange-Harris sexual chemistry. They have it to spare, but their big scene (a slow dance to a Sam Cooke number on a car radio) seems a direct lift from the more erotic Harrison Ford-Kelly McGillis scene in Witness. Cline deserved more for her life story than a down-home remake of A Star Is Born. But in Jessica Lange she at least has found an actress to memorialize her tang and tenacity. For that reason Sweet Dreams—sour notes and all—stands as a tribute to both their talents. (PG-13)

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