PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)
2 hrs. 15 min.
written by: Johnny Cash, Gill Dennis, & James Mangold
produced by: James Keach, & Cathy Konrad
directed by: James Mangold
It was kinda nice to have the day after Christmas Day and New Years Day off work this year due to the fact that both holidays fell on Sundays. It gave me an opportunity to recover from holiday festivities and also (like many of you) to catch up on some films. So between going to the theater or staying put on the couch, I found myself trying to catch up on some films I haven't had the chance to see. Being a fan of Johnny Cash, people were quite surprised that I had not seen the this biopic yet. As I always say, I don't get paid to see movies. I like movies. But, like anyone else, it takes time and money. Those two factors were aligned on both of these recent post-holiday days and I finally got a chance to see this here film.
Now, lemme first say that I did not become a Johnny Cash fan upon hearing about this movie or it's release. I've known of Cash and his music for quite a while. My father turned me on to Cash at an early age. I remember him humming the classic "boom-chicka-boom" sound that Cash originated way back when I was a wee lad. I had known about his legendary live concert prison albums from Folsom and San Quentin. I grew up in a time when Cash's life was known more for his legal and drug trouble rather than his great music.
Regardless of alla that, I knew when I heard his voice I was hearing something real. Cash's powerful voice resonated something true within me that made me wanna listen to him. His voice came from the blackest of nights with a stark solid beam of light hitting just the right chords. Cash sang of the down-trodden, of the guilty and of the wrongly accused, as well as songs of love and hope. His music and behavior would pave the way for rock, country, Folk, punk, and rap.
Cash has written about his personal transformation from self-destructive pop icon to the iconic "man in black" in both "Man in Black" and "Cash". He's a man who's faced down his demons, stubbornly fought for love, and learned how to walk the razor-thin line between destruction and redemption.
When I heard they were gonna make this movie I was quite nervous. I mean who could possibly portray the larger-than-life Cash respectfully let alone successfully. But, then I heard that Cash specifically selected Joaquin Phoenix to play him. I know Phoenix to be a talented, capable actor and with Cash hand-picking him, I wasn't gonna be too upset. Then it was announced that Reese Witherspoon would be playing June Carter Cash and somehow I just knew that'd be fitting. As the movie was released I had read that these two actors actually did their own singing as well. After watching the movie, I gotta admit it was one of the most dead-on performances I have ever seen. More on that later.
The movie starts out at Folsom Prison in Sacramento, CA on January 13, 1968. From outside the concrete & steel, we hear the roaring and cl aping of inmates combines with the thundering "boom-chicka-boom" of Cash's band as they all await his appearance. Cash is seen in what appears to be a shop room that he's using as a backstage room. His brow is sweaty and his gaze is fixed on the razor's edge of a table saw blade. Something keeps him there. Blocking all other sound he runs his finger along the blade and you just know there's somethin' goin' on behind that steady stare.
Then the movie takes you back to Cash's childhood years in rural Dyess, Arkansas where his hard-working parents raised him along with his brother, Jack and his sisters. He and his brother were best friends. He looked up to him and often felt like Jack was a better boy than him cuz his father, Ray Cash (Robert Patrick) often favored him. They grew up listening to gospel music on the radio and went fishing together. Young Johhny's world would forever be changed when in 1944 Jack died from wounds he received from a horrible table saw accident in the mill they worked at nearly teared the poor boy in two. The death was devastating to Cash because that day he decided to go fishing instead of help Jack work. It didn't help that the hard-drinking Ray blamed Johnny and even said to that God "took the wrong son." In the movie you sense that the drive behind a Johnny Cash song was defiance. He was going to sing it no matter what anybody thought....especially his old man.
Maybe it was his despair over his brother combined with his spite toward his father that drove Cash on his journey. He leaves Arkansas to join the Air Force in Germany where he writes his first song "Folsom Prison Blues" inspired after seeing the B-movie "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison." When his service ended he came back to the states and married his first wife Vivian Liberto (Jennifer Goodwin) in Memphis and Johnny took a crack at selling appliances door to door. No success. At the same time he was trying to start his recording career and would practice songs with his band at night. Yet when he referred to "his band", Vivian would say, "your band is two mechanics who can't hardly play." Sadly, she was kinda right.
Cash happened upon Sun Records in Memphis where legendary producer Sam Philips (Dallas Roberts) reluctantly gave them an audition. After Philips didn't even let them finish their rehearsed gospel songs, he asked Cash if he had anything besides gospel songs. He starts playing "Folsom Prison Blues" and his poor guitarist, Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) didn't know how to follow along as this was the first time they were hearin' it. It is at this audition where Phoenix's performance shows us that this is where Johnny found the sound he needed to be real. As they do their best to keep up with him and back Cash up you can hear the infamous sound come together.
"Walk the Line" isn't too far from many other musical biopics, in that there's childhood trauma, drugs, romance, & too much success. Then there's the recovery from the addiction (hopefully), finding and keeping love, and claiming a lasting stardom. The difference in each of these movies is that it's always different characters and music. Although they may go through the same drama, it's how they handle life's situations is what separates them and draws you to them.
Just like in real life, the movie would not have been the same without June Carter Cash in it. Witherspoon's performance is filled with endless energy and fierce vulnerability. June was a part of the famous Carter Family, the founding voices of country/gospel that he would listen to on the radio as a boy. By the time Cash finally meets her he is both starstruck and captivated. We see in the movie that June had developed a comedic persona onstage to make up for what she thought was sub par vocal talent. She is seen as having a knack for hooking up with the wrong men as she goes through a coupla of marriages. It would appear that Cash is just another wrong man despite how well they work together onstage. She holds him at a distance due to his marriage and even after his divorce, all the booze and pills.
The film's most harrowing scene shows Johnny onstage after an overdose, his face distorted by pain and anger, looking almost satanic before he collapses. What is most fearsome is not even his collapse, but the force of his will, which makes him try to perform when he is clearly unable to. You would not want to get in the way of that determination. When Cash is finally busted and spends some time in jail, his father is dependably laconic: "Now you won't have to work so hard to make people think you been to jail."
Although Cash's father (played with merciless aim by Robert Patrick) eventually does sober up, the family that saves him is June's. The Carter Family were country royalty ever since the days their of broadcasts from a high-powered pirate station across the river from Del Rio, Texas. When they take a chance on Cash, they all take the chance; watch her parents as they greet Johnny's favorite pill-pusher.
Knowing Cash's albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to. Phoenix and Mangold can talk all they want about how it was as much a matter of getting in character, of delivering the songs, as it was a matter of voice technique, but whatever it was, it worked. Cash's voice was "steady like a train, sharp like a razor," said June.
The movie fudges some on the facts, but I was surprised to learn that Cash actually did propose marriage to Carter onstage during a concert; it feels like the sort of scene screenwriters invent, but no. Other scenes are compressed or fictionalized, as they must be, and I would have liked more screen time for the other outlaws, including Waylon and Willie. Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis make brief excursions through the plot, but essentially this is the story of John and June and a lot of great music. And essentially that's the story we want.
Whether you're into country music or not....the story of his life is compelling enough to move you as well as entertain you, of course.I saw it with my wife and she thought it was great and she isn't even as big of a fan as I am. Like last years "Ray", it doesn't matter whether you like the music, it's the characterization and the amazing acting that makes the this the best biopic of 2005 (sorry "Cinderella Man"). Now, "Capote" was great but to nail a role in both acting and singing is truly a feat that not many can do. Go see this for Phoenix and Witherspoon and see if you can't get caught up in a burning "Ring of Fire."