HomeReviewsOn ScreenOn Screen: New Film "Seriously Red" inhabits the spirit of Dolly Parton

On Screen: New Film “Seriously Red” inhabits the spirit of Dolly Parton

Well, ain’t you a squeezy bag o’ peaches? I learned this term of endearment from Franny (Thomas Campbell), Red’s best mate in Australian director Gracie Otto’s new film Seriously Red. It also seems an apt description of how I felt taking this hilarious, awkward, exhilarating journey of self-discovery with Raylene “Red” Delaney (Krew Boylan), the title character. It’s a delightful film that’s bonkers and poignant, and leaves in the messy bits. I laughed, sometimes through gritted teeth, and like Franny, I didn’t want to save Red, I just wanted to love her.

I must admit, the log line for the film, “A realtor pursues a new career as a Dolly Parton impersonator,” sounds quite like an improv-game setup. But add in a tribute performer who actually believes he’s Kenny Rogers (Daniel Webber), a promoter who’s got “genuine copies, not copies of copies” (Bobby Cannavale), and a manager with teeth growing in her vagina (Celeste Barber). Then put it on stage at the late night Copy Club, hosted by Elvis (Rose Byrne) and lit by copy machines with their tops popped, and now I’m interested.

Red/Dolly (Krew Boylan & Elvis (Rose Byrne) at the Copy Club (used by permission)

Red’s rut is likely familiar to many of us – living at home with a critical parent, serial missteps in love and career, flailing a bit in a world that seems out of sync with her. However, when a subculture of tribute performers embraces her as Dolly, she scraps everything to inhabit an elaborate fantasy, fueled by sex, applause, and promo posters.

The film charmed me with fun plot twists and scenes like the opener, in which Red lies in an empty bathtub, doing God knows what (as far as we know at that point). But for all its fly-eye camera effects and trippy montages, the beating heart of this film is the timeless hill-country wisdom of Dolly Parton. And the music is its crowning glory – the vehicle that transports Red on her odyssey of self-discovery.

Here are three of my favorite musical moments in the film:

“9 to 5”

Early in the film, Red takes the stage at her office award party, accidentally dressed as Dolly, to receive the “office clown” award. She’s nervous and embarrassed, until she breaks into a rendition of “9 to 5” (or 8:30 to 6 in this case). I sat up in my chair and my heart swelled for her. It’s an inspiring moment, and she (the character and the actor) crushes it.

Here’s Dolly performing it in 2019 at a celebration of her 50 years in the Grand Ole Opry.

“Islands in the Stream”

The relationship between Red and the tribute performer Kenny Rogers supercharges Red’s burgeoning career. Her first night on tour in Hong Kong, Red/Dolly has a flammable-wig disaster, but in true Dolly fashion, goes on with the show. This classic duet ignites the chemistry for Red/Dolly and Kenny, and I stirred in my seat. It also sets up my favorite line in the film from Wilson, the promoter. “A stream is a small body of water. There’s no way an island fits in a stream.”

I think Boylan and Webber must’ve watched this clip to prepare (“Don’t forget to hold his hand”).

“I Am… I Said”

Dolly’s isn’t the only music that fuels this inspirational story. The role of Wilson was reportedly retooled by Krew Boylan (also the screenwriter) when Bobby Cannavale signed on to the project. Wilson is a former tribute performer, and upon reading the script, Cannavale commented, “If it was Neil Diamond, I can do Neil Diamond.” With self-discovery as the film’s central theme, choosing to have Wilson sing “I Am… I Said” was a stroke of brilliance. It’s a turning point for Red, and I stood and applauded Cannavale’s earnest-as-Neil rendition.

Here’s Neil himself in an appearance on what looks to be German television.

This film is also about commitment, and it explores the consequences when commitment is not balanced with integrity and authenticity. It poses fundamental questions – Is it OK to be who I am? What if that’s not enough? Searching for direction, Red, like so many of us, listens closest to some of the least helpful voices in her life: her narcissist mother, her uptight boss, and Elvis. As lovable and rollicking as this film is, it’s also agonizing to be reminded of the familiar refrain: Be more, be better, be different.

Red makes a choice to commit to her artificial life that made my heart ache for her. It brought to mind choices I’ve made in an effort to silence my inner critic. Even Kenny, the blank slate, is bewildered. She confesses that she simply “wanted to have that feeling that everyone else looks like they’re having.” Ultimately though, in the story’s denouement, Red has to choose whether to truly go all the way, or to face the reality of her human-ness. Only when she strips herself down to her bare essence can she embody Dolly’s entreaty, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

Seriously Red uses humor to distract from some of the thornier aspects of being a gloriously flawed and imperfect human. I suggest you skip therapy this week and watch the film instead. It opened February 10 in theaters and on streaming platforms, from Dollhouse Pictures, Rose Byrnes’s new production company.

It’s released and distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment. Visit the Seriously Red official site, and buy it on your favorite digital platform.

Don’t miss 360°Sound’s tributes to the actual Dolly Parton

Top Ten Covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

Dolly Parton Now: 21st Century Singles


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