Netflix has given us so many strange things over the years that it’s hard to be surprised anymore, but an album of twelve new songs from Dolly Parton is a new one. Still, her authenticity and relentless positivity made her a natural choice to score their feel-good musical comedy, Dumplin’.
In approaching her to craft their entire soundtrack, the producers of Dumplin’ were gambling on an approach that has produced at least as many flops as successes. Approaching an artist to write an original number or two is reasonably common practice, but having them turn out an album’s worth of material is not only ambitious, it’s rare for a reason. They could have played it safe and sought permission to use existing recordings of Parton’s hits, which probably would have resulted in a perfectly enjoyable, if unremarkable score. And that might well have happened had Parton not immediately clicked with songwriter Linda Perry and decided to expand their collaboration beyond the theme song she had originally agreed to create. Rather than put out a whole record of new material, Parton and Perry opted to split the difference, and the soundtrack features six re-recorded songs and six created exclusively for the film.
Luckily for Dumplin’, Dolly Parton pulled it off, probably in no small part because of her own enthusiasm for the project. How well it holds up as a soundtrack will be seen when the movie arrives on Netflix on December 7, but on its own merits Parton’s Dumplin’ (★★★★) works just as well as a standalone album. While it does lean heavily on the film’s themes of longing for a better life and budding self-love, it does not immediately sound like it was created around a film.
The original songs written for Dumplin’ are not Parton’s best work, to be sure, but each one holds up and are all enjoyable enough to listen to. “Girl in the Movies” is a plaintive “I want” ballad sung from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, a recurring theme revisited on the slightly more uplifting “Red Shoes.” By their nature, Parton’s well-known hits are mostly catchy, upbeat, and celebratory, and so it makes sense that the original work created to fill out the soundtrack would tend to be more maudlin out of necessity to fit the film’s more somber moments. The exception is “If We Don’t,” which has more of the classic, plucky country sound of 1970s Parton and stands out as the best of the original material.
The highlight of the soundtrack, however, are the updated versions of Parton’s older hits. As much as Parton shines here, the success of the songs owes much to the other artists accompanying her. Before the new version of “Here I Am” dropped in September, it would have been hard to imagine Sia topping the country music charts. Their duet rendition of the 1971 hit works remarkably well, with Sia and Parton playing off one another perfectly, each lending the track the emotive power it deserves.
Even more impressive is the rework of “Two Doors Down” featuring DOROTHY and the legendary Macy Gray. Not all of the songs improve on the originals — the string version of “Jolene” that closes out the film is one of the more interesting takes on Parton’s iconic and endlessly-covered single, but it is also an easily forgettable downer. “Holdin’ On To You” is barely distinguishable from the original, although Elle King’s rockabilly-adjacent style makes her a natural partner for Parton.
At their worst, the low points of the soundtrack are merely unremarkable compared to the standouts. Strictly speaking, there isn’t a bad song on here. Although a strong artist in her own right, one of Parton’s more underrated gifts is that she is a natural team player. Aside from Miranda Lambert, drowned out somewhat on “Dumb Blonde,” it’s easy to get the impression that Parton could work well with anyone, no matter how far outside her country music wheelhouse they are.
Between the songs she penned alongside Perry and the stunning duets with other incredible artists, Parton’s talent for collaboration is perhaps the greatest strength of Dumplin’. As a result, this is that rare kind of soundtrack that can stand independently of its film. Even if a touchy-feely movie about mothers and daughters and beauty pageants isn’t your thing, Parton’s soundtrack deserves a spin.
The Dumplin’ soundtrack is available now on CD for $9.98 at Amazon.com and on most streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music. The movie, starring Jennifer Aniston, will be available on Netflix Friday, Dec. 7.
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