dir: James Mangold
[img_assist|nid=1224|title=May you be reunited in death so you can use drugs together again, June and Johnny|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=400]
Johnny Cash. The Man in Black. An icon and a music legend. Contemporary of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and a stack of others, influenced by and influential to them all. Could a two and a half hour film do him and his life justice? Can Joaquin Phoenix and the toothsome Reese Witherspoon do the story of the Big Big Love between Cash and June Carter justice? Or even get close?
Someone as simultaneously recognisable and mysterious as Cash needs a twenty hour film about his life. With a squillion dollar budget, all the CGI in the world, and the best actors and production people alive or dead (resurrected) to work on it. It would need a director who combines the spirit and ability of Leni Reifenstahl, Sergei Eisenstein, Otto Preminger, Carl Dreyer, John Ford, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir to get it right. It would need the greatest actors culled from history, put into a blender until gooey, with their DNA spliced and respliced until the mixture was just right, re-coded up into the greatest actor possible, which would then be discarded anyway in favour of a resurrected, young, vital, dangerous Johnny Cash to play the lead.
Clearly such a collaboration and combination of events will never happen anywhere apart from in my fevered, amphetamine-fuelled imagination. Such is life. Long ago, whilst working as a scullery maid for a cruel mistress, I’d realised life for me was going to be a perpetual sequence of disappointments punctuated with mere moments of mirthless pleasure. So I’m not surprised that this film doesn’t meet the meagre criteria I magnanimously set forth for it.
That doesn’t make it any the lesser. For what it is, Walk the Line is an enjoyable and competent enough film. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, and Witherspoon as June Carter put in decent performances. But the film is still a superficial look at the Man’s life, hobbled by the same problems that neuter most biopics about musical, genre-straddling legends.
The formula is so tremendously adhered to that it renders a person’s life into a simple sequence of events meant to equal a final, safe answer.
The formula is as follows:
The film starts with the main character as an adult, before some major event, whose reminiscence is prompted by seeing or hearing some particular object or piece of news, or making a reference we don’t yet understand. This is known as the ‘Rosebud’ set-up, dating back to Welles’ Citizen Kane.
The story then shifts to the character’s childhood, where the idyllic but poverty stricken elements are emphasised until the Precipitating or Traumatic event occurs, which we are lead to believe encapsulates the character’s entire existence and is the single most influential moment of their entire lives.
The main dude or dudette then struggles for a while, by persistence or chance gets their big break, pays their dues for a while, then hits it massively big.
The fame goes to their head, they hit the downward spiral and alienate everyone around them, usually drugs and violence are at play. They hit rock bottom, then the love of a good woman / man / Afghan turns their life around after they go through a speedy montage of withdrawal, which constitutes little more than sweating whilst lying in bed for a few days.
They return to the scene shown at the beginning of the film, where we now understand what that one element means, and they make their big return, restored to their rightful position with the other stars hanging in the firmament. Story ends.
Walk the Line is no different. It could have been the life of any famous musician over the last 80 years. Though a much better film, it is virtually identical to the biopic about Ray Charles the year before last. Ray was a crap film, with a blazing central performance by Jaime Foxx. Walk the Line is a decent flick with decent performances, but illuminates little about the man when it could have shown us so much more. Johnny Cash surely had more going on in his massive head and dark heart than this film implies.
One example of the manner in which they somewhat drop the ball with buttered fingers for me is how they never even bother to explain why Cash was the Man in Black. Even I know why he chose that costume from the start of his career. If I know it, and it’s based on hearing a recording of the Man himself telling the tale, then surely the filmmakers knew it too.
Cash had to be more complicated than this, and I know for a fact that his life was far more complicated than the melodramas here would indicate.
His first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an unremitting, unmerciful shrew from her first scene to her last. Every single line she is given is calculated to convince us of what an awful slag she was and how right it was for she and Cash to part ways.
Now I don’t claim to know enough to comment about the reality of their relationship in any authoritative way. What I am sure about is that occasionally she must have said “Hello” or “Would you like a beer?” or “Yes, right there, that’s the spot”. You wouldn’t glean that from this film. Unsurprisingly, Vivian Cash and her daughters complained upon release of the film that the flick was not entirely accurate or kind to her. Considering that Cash’s son with June Carter, John Carter Cash, is the executive producer, you can sort of guess that there is little love lost between the two families.
One scene intended to represent a real occasion of domestic violence is so clearly ‘media managed’ that it rings entirely false. Also ringing false are the scenes where characters use Cash and Carter song titles or lyrics as unselfconscious dialogue. People deserve to be punched in their nether regions for writing that dialogue, make no mistake.
Lest you think I’m damning the film with faint praise, I actually loved the film. I think I’m praising it with faint damning instead. To acknowledge the problems doesn’t detract from the enjoyment I derived watching it. Some of the scenes gave me goosebumps, and that’s no mean feat.
Phoenix gives a compelling portrayal. He does bring, purely by dint of looks, a keen note of dark sexuality to his portrayal. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t look much like the young Cash. What matters is that with those eyes, and that performance, he convinces you that the man you’re watching and listening is equal parts sinner and saint, demon and angel, even if the script doesn’t let enough of the darkness out.
He also does an admirable job with the singing, reaching a happy medium between his own voice and that of Cash. They clearly did a lot of production work on that voice to make it sound lower and deeper and more resonant during the songs, but he manages to make his speaking voice resonate well in general dialogue as well. Cash’s voice is so well-known, and distinctive that instead of an imitation, we can be happy with Phoenix’s approximation.
Witherspoon is great as June Carter Cash. The women aren’t often believable in these sorts of biopics, and are usually forced to play to type (either as groupies, party girls, lunatics or uptight, joyless shrews like his first wife). She makes what could have been a grating character enjoyable, despite her lethal perkiness. She plays the character very well, especially at moments you wouldn’t expect to be that important. Her perkiness and self-deprecation masks her sadness and her strength. Witherspoon does well with the twangy accent, though she comes from holy roller, Grand Ol’ Opry, hillbilly stock herself.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves really well. You have a lot of people playing pretty well-known elder gods of the musical pantheon, and they do well with their roles without being distracting. You’d think a film with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as characters in it would be too much to deal with, but ‘tis handled well.
The song choices are good, the live performances are done well, and though long, the film doesn’t drag. One scene I particularly liked has Johnny and his band (the Tennessee Two) auditioning for legendary record producer Sam Phillips. Upon listening to a lacklustre rendition of a gospel song, Phillips launches in a scathing tirade telling Cash he doesn’t believe him and unless he’s got something real to sing, he best be leaving. It’s a very well acted and written scene.
Shame it has nothing to do with reality. In truth, in the same situation, Phillips actually said to Cash “Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell." The scene works well all the same.
The performance at Folsom Prison acts as the film’s framing device, and is handled well, very well. It’s a strong high point when it is revisited towards the film’s end.
The central, obvious, most important relationship has to be between Carter and Cash. If it didn’t work, then the film wouldn’t work. When June Carter Cash died in 2003, after thirty five years of marriage, and longer of the two of them being in love, Johnny lasted only four months before joining her in what I’m sure he hoped was heaven. Their love for each other was one of those classic, gargantuan love stories that few got close to and most would have envied.
They manage to convey this in their scenes together. I may not believe that June Carter was the living embodiment of salvation as Cash saw her, based on what’s in Walk the Line, but I do believe that they were drawn by elemental forces together, and found redemption in each other eyes and hearts.
There could have and should have been more. They never address his deep feelings of mortality, though they allude to the significance of his sibling’s death. They never really explain why he related so much to guys in prison. They don’t address the central contradiction of a man who portrays himself as a world weary ex-prison convict who never spent more than a night here or there in the drunk tank. Cash was also an Evangelical Christian, and there is little evidence of a man wrestling with his faith here, though he does struggle getting the tops off of some beer bottles.
Still, there’s enough of the factual and the legendary here to make it an enjoyable time to spend with a musical legend. Sure it’s fiction, but as the adage goes, when confronted with the truth and the legend, go with the legend.
7 times I’ve fallen into a burning ring of fire started by meddlesome teenagers with a can of lighter fluid who just want to torment someone sleeping on a park bench minding his own business out of 10
“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” – Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash