The opening frame shows a shoe with a towering heel on a bouncing foot. A familiar piano riff chugs along over top of the image. The song is "Nine to Five" and the stiletto belongs to Dolly Parton, who settles into a chair, ready to be interviewed, in the opening sequence of The Book Lady.
The Emotion Pictures documentary explores the origins and growth in Canada, particularly Nova Scotia, of the Imagination Library. Through the combined effort of Parton's non-profit Dollywood Foundation, the charitable organization Invest in Kids and local community fundraising, the program sends a book every month to children, geared to their age from the time they're newborns until age five, in communities registered in the program.
What Dolly Parton is doing promoting early reading is a question central to The Book Ladyand is considered by other speakers in the film, from fellow country star Keith Urban to children's author Robert Munsch to Miley Cyrus (Parton's goddaughter who has an unnervingly husky voice and laugh).
"The contradiction of Dolly Parton having a literacy project was massive," says Natasha Ryan, the doc's director. That's what attracted her to the project. But she became convinced of the country superstar's sincerity and credibility "because she doesn't apologize for who she is and she doesn't hold back on...her presentation of herself in any way, shape or form."
Adds producer Brad Horvath: "That's what I like about her---the paradox of her persona---artificial and authentic, ambitious and altruistic, distant and down-to-earth. She really is the same way in person as she is on television---disarmingly cheerful, witty, full of energy and endearing. You can't help but be transfixed."
Parton herself is aware of the conflict and wondered if the documentary would clarify or muddy perceptions. In the end, she says she concluded, "I like to think I look totally artificial but I'm completely real where it counts."
She points to her original motivation for starting The Imagination Library. "I started it in my home county because I wanted to do something nice for my own people," Parton says, her Tennessee twang clear on the line. It's only days until her 9 to 5: The Musicalhas a short test-run in Los Angeles, before opening on Broadway in April next year, but she apologizes for calling late to discuss The Book Lady.
"It was inspired by the fact that many of my own relatives, including my own father, couldn't read nor write. Because we were very poor people, very rural people. A lot of people didn't get a chance to go to school and I saw how crippling that could be."
Dolly Parton grew up in Sevierville, Sevier (pronounced "severe") County, nestled into the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. She grew up in a family of 12 children.
The Book Lady includes several seconds of home-movie footage. The filmmakers (Horvath and Ryan) asked the artist for the material and, along with a few of her tunes, Parton kindly obliged. The family film runs just long enough to see a kindergarten-aged Dolly run towards the camera---the shape of her mouth, despite her self-professed devotion to plastic surgery, a giveaway.
Though books were costly to her family, reading developed naturally. "I don't remember learning to read. I remember learning to write, but it seems like I've been reading all my life," she says. "I loved fairytales. And even though we weren't allowed to take books home because there were so many children that, you know, they'd tear up or eat up or chew up the books. But the Bible was a big book in our household and in school." The Little Engine That Couldwas also a "big book" for her, she says, and it's the first one sent out to every child in the Imagination Library.The Book Lady, Saturday, September 20 at Empire Park Lane, 2pm, $10, Atlanticfilm.com/aff.