'Man in Black' Johnny
Cash dead at 71
As you might expect, Walk The Line has a very rich soundtrack.
Joaquin Phoenix has managed to capture much of
the universally recognized physicality of Johnny Cash,
and Reese Witherspoon has never been more appealing
than she is here, as June Carter. So why am I not
Well for one thing, there’s no way to keep from comparing
this to the gold standard of singer biopics, Coal Miner’s
Daughter, which plumbed similar material. The songwriting process
isn’t as well done here as in CMD, though a lot of
scenes are devoted to showing us the origins of classics such as
“Get Rhythm!” “Ring Of Fire,” and “I
Walk The Line.” Also, there’s no way to keep from noting
similarities to last year’s Ray, which also featured
the childhood scar of a dead sibling as (part of) the reason for
later acting-out and drug-taking. Who could have guessed that the
most flesh-and-blood parts of these latter two movies would be their
scenes of musical performances (viz. the blistering performance
of “Cocaine Kid” at Folsom)? But finally, Walk The
Line employs an almost textbook conventional telling for the
story of a man most of us perceive as the definition of unconventional.
Cash was the original “he did it his way” guy, and he
and his legions of fans are ill-served by James Mangold’s
by-the-numbers treatment, which ends when the hero gets the girl.
Fortunately, The Johnny Cash Story is such good stuff that you could
get a couple of stars just off the material.
And cute little Reese Witherspoon is always worth a star or two.
Walk The Line is pretty herky-jerky as it covers Cash’s
childhood and early, pre-musician years, sketchily filling in the
Important Stuff You’ll Need To Know For Later. The movie finally
pauses to draw breath once Cash begins to pursue a music career
in earnest. He was in the right place at the right time, passing
by the Sun Records recording studio in 1955. The Sun studio boasted
a “Make Your Own Record” sign, prompting me to wonder
whether vanity recording was the same kind of craze for DIY-ers
in the fifties that blogging is now. At any rate, Cash’s career
takes off under the guidance of producer Sam Phillips (Roberts)
and soon he’s on a nonstop succession of tour dates.
As in Lady Sings The Blues, the sine wave of raved-up
performance followed by the grind of getting to the next show leads
to the need for, well, if not speed, something like it, and soon
Cash is a pill-popping musician-stereotype. Why is that a stereotype?
Lots of music stars fight demons like drugs or the drink, but then
again, lots more don’t. June Carter, Cash’s soulmate,
didn’t. What’s different in her character that she was
not tempted in these ways? One well-done aspect of Mangold’s
storytelling is the near-constant juxtaposition of Cash’s
heart-and-soul passion with Carter’s head-over-heart pragmatism.
It makes the long walk to the altar for these two all the more understandable.
In one wonderfully illustrative scene, Cash proposes to Carter and
tells her that some issue will work itself out, to which Carter
replies, “No, it does not work itself out. People work it
out for you and you think it works out.” Now that’s
great stuff, and you can see the frustration of this woman who simply
refuses to take any shit but is also yearning for the pitiful fellow
she loves to get his shit in a stack. No wonder it burned, burned,
The movie tends to dwell on the drama-filled drug-abuse stuff,
including the stock scene of Celebrity Sweating Out The Drugs. Cash
emerges from this ordeal weak as a ewe lamb, and June leads him
back into the fold, telling him that God has given him a second
chance. Religion and faith play a big part in Cash: The Autobiography,
and I did just wonder how God would be treated in this movie. Save
for this brief mention and Carrie Cash’s
book of hymns, the almighty gets dissed again. Sigh. Walk The
Line leans also to literal pop-psychological explanations.
By no means is Cash Sr. (Patrick) a warm, cuddly
father. Robert Patrick does a great job as the taciturn dad who
is not encouraging, but also not exactly wrong about some stuff
Examples of further stock footage include a couple of things you
never want to see again, like:
• a creekbed scene of Carter teaching Cash how to
cast a line, as one of those touchy-feely, let-me-spoon-up-behind-you
situations that make you wonder when was the first time this blocking
occurred in a movie
• a scene of loss and anguish shot through the back window
of a car pulling away
• an out-of-control, higher-than-a-kite musician stumbling
about helplessly on stage.
On the plus side, Cash’s promotion of Carter’s solo
singing career, an undeniable good for the world, is shown. And
this movie will definitely make you want to hunt up and listen to
more Carter Family/June Carter recordings, as well
as more Johnny Cash recordings (accompaniment for this review—Johnny
Cash, Johnny Cash: The Essential Sun Recordings; Son
Volt, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot—and
a nice shiraz). You will have a better chance of coming to deeper
knowledge of The Man In Black through the music than through this