Back in black A movie about Johnny Cash, believe it or not Regarding Walk the Line, the new Johnny Cash biopic opening this Friday, one thing’s for certain: I’ll never listen to that chugging ballad the same way again. After watching Joaquin Phoenix’s Cash stumble under the effects of speed and barbiturates for the better part of an hour, the line “I keep my eyes wide open all the time” takes on a whole new meaning.
Actually, “I Walk the Line” was written before Cash began his decade-long fling with drugs in the late 1950s. It was also written before his affair with June Carter purportedly began. The film, however, shows him writing the song as a retort after June taunts the drunken, unreliable Johnny with the words, “You can’t walk the line.” As it happens, there’s a little difference of opinion about to who that song was directed. Was Johnny walking the floor over June, as the movie would have us believe? Or was the song written to Vivian, his first wife and the mother of his four daughters, including Rosanne?
James Mangold’s film is replete with similar factual elisions, and most of them, like the provenance of “I Walk the Line,” are harmless enough examples of dramatic license. Indeed, the film itself is a harmless enough retracing of the biopic formula, most obviously last year’s Ray, which delivered an Oscar to Jamie Foxx for his marvelous channeling of a drug-addicted musician who overcame childhood tragedy, grinding Southern poverty and women problems to become a national treasure, only to die just before the Hollywood movie of his life came out. Hey, wait a minute….
Comparisons between the two films are inevitable. Both hopscotch across the decades, pausing for episodes that illustrate the birth of signature tunes. Both are vehicles for fine period production design, knockout soundtracks and opportunities for big stars to play potential prize-winning roles. Here, Joaquin Phoenix does his own singing as the Man in Black, who was born J.R. Cash in 1932, the second son in an impoverished Arkansas farm family. Also showing off some pipes is Reese Witherspoon as Cash’s second wife, June Carter, daughter of The Carter Family’s Maybelle, who developed a comic persona to compensate for her vocal shortcomings.
All biopics must confront the problem of compressing time, of crafting a satisfying two-hour narrative composed of the bits and pieces of a lifetime. The current hit Capote solves the problem by narrowing its focus to the five years Truman Capote spent crafting his masterpiece. Other filmmakers look to postmodernism for solutions: Todd Haynes, the director of Far From Heaven, is threatening us with something currently called I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan, in which seven actors, including women, act out various aspects of his Bobness. (Considering the fates of Charles and Cash, Dylan may want to see if his will is in order.)
Most biopics, however, opt for the tried and dull, beginning at some point at the peak of the celebrity’s fame and then hurtling us back to his humble origins. And so it goes in Walk the Line that the film opens at a California penitentiary, in the year 1968, where Cash is preparing to record what will become his most famous album, Live at Folsom Prison. The band is vamping on the stage, the inmates are hopped up, but Johnny is lingering offstage, staring at a saw in the prison shop.
But instead of going straight into that incendiary concert, the film’s image of the saw cues us to Cash’s impoverished Arkansas childhood where he grew up on a Depression-era work camp. His father (Robert Patrick) is a drunken lout and his mom (country performer Shelby Lynne, herself no stranger to squalor and violence) is a saintly singer of hymns. His adored older brother Jack is the pride of the family who helps make ends meet with a job at a sawmill, until tragedy strikes.
The first act of the film is a singularly dull exercise as we’re marched through the years of obscurity before this apparently unremarkable man becomes famous. The grown Cash escapes the farm by joining the Air Force, shipping out to Germany where he buys a guitar and writes “Folsom Prison Blues” after seeing a B-film of that title. He marries Vivian, a woman whose charms the film refuses to display out of deference to the hallowed June. Mustered out of the Air Force, Cash moves to Memphis where he begins to disappoint his wife, failing at jobs and continuing to insist on being a musician. (The film could have enlivened its Germany sequence with a dramatization of an event that was reported in Cash’s obituaries: In his job as radio operator, Cash was the first person in the West to receive news of Stalin’s death.)
The fog doesn’t really lift off the film until Cash’s fateful encounter with Sam Phillips, the proprietor of Sun Studios who’d scouted out Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Initially, the audition doesn’t go well, as Cash and his band labor through a lugubrious gospel song. “I don’t believe you,” snaps Phillips. In a speech nicely delivered by Dallas Roberts, Phillips challenges Cash to sing the song he would sing if he had only two minutes to live. Cash responds with “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the rest is history, as far as the film is concerned. (History, alas, is history. Cash actually returned some days later and presented “Hey Porter.”) The film’s liveliest section then follows, with Cash on the road with Elvis, Jerry Lee and June, a merry band of uneducated hillbillies making the hippest music around, decades before rock culture became the property of collegiate ironists.
But who was Johnny Cash, finally, this man with a limited but charismatic baritone who relished singing about prison, executions and the killing of women? Disappointingly, this film settles for giving us the Johnny that we already know: the Johnny who dressed in black, kicked out footlights, trashed hotel rooms, became a speed freak and hung out with Elvis and Roy and Jerry Lee. Nothing in the film challenges the fashionable rock ‘n’ roll Johnny, the one who would sing with U2 and end his life recording a Nine Inch Nails song called “Hurt,” which was accompanied by a truly harrowing video in which June also appeared. Nor does the film give a full portrait of June, presenting her as the most benign Other Woman in history. We don’t find out, for example, that June was once a bit of a bohemian, studying acting in New York at the Actor’s Studio under Elia Kazan and dating James Dean.
More damningly, another crucial aspect of June’s influence is obscured, beginning when Sam Phillips sneers at Cash’s gospel singing. Whether the grunge rockers who embraced Cash late in his life like it or not, he was a fervent Christian, a faith that deepened with his involvement with June. When he finally married June in 1968, after a decade of extramarital friendship, she converted him to a fundamentalist creed, a major development that the film reduces to a brief, wordless shot of them entering a church.
Reportedly, Cash himself chose Joaquin Phoenix for the role, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to the slight physical resemblance, Phoenix has the requisite somber, glowering affect. He hits the notes just fine, but his portrait of Cash is ultimately just what we expect–deadly serious. Even in the obligatory groupie scene, Phoenix refuses to let his Cash indulge in the sex with vulgar glee (he’s walking the line, remember?). What distinguished Jamie Foxx’s characterization of Ray Charles was his fearlessness: Charles was a bit of a bastard, and Foxx brought him back to life as a bastard. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, is a walking statue–a lifelike approximation, but a statue nonetheless. If Sam Phillips were alive, he might say to Phoenix, “I don’t believe you.”