The Usual Subtexts
Johnny Cash Biopic Misunderstands The Man In Black As Just Another Troubled Artist In Search Of Redemption
There’s a scene in the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, where Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) sits onstage the morning after an all-nighter. Slouching nearby, equally amphetamine-jangled, are his Sun Records tour mates—Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. It’s the Million Dollar Quartet sloshed on $10 of beer. Broken bottles lie at their feet as they pick and sing a raunchy blues number.
Striding down the theater’s empty aisle is another tour mate, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), looking pretty and perky after a full night’s sleep and a fresh change of clothes. Cash tries to lure her up on stage, but she takes one look at his swollen eyelids and stained shirt and reads him the riot act. When he cracks a joke about her uptight attitude, she starts pitching beer bottles at his head.
It’s a wonderful, iconic scene, compactly structured by director/co-screenwriter James Mangold and shot like a fever dream. It also completely misses Cash’s essence, emblematic of a movie full of terrific, memorable scenes that misunderstand their subject.
Mangold wants to tell the easy, obvious story—the Behind the Music tale of an out-of-control rock ’n’ roller who falls prey to drugs before he’s saved by the love of a good woman. To do that, Mangold turns Cash into a wild-child clone of Presley and Lewis. But what makes Cash so fascinating is the very different personality he brought to the rockabilly revolution.
Cash was only 22 when he cut his first single in 1955, but he was already an old man in many ways. He had a wife and daughter, he read constantly, he clung to the old hillbilly and gospel songs he grew up on, and he had a stiff reserve that contrasted with his rowdier friends. Those qualities didn’t make him any better or worse than Presley, but they did turn Cash into a country singer-songwriter rather than a rock ’n’ roll star. Cash could never have wailed and danced his way through “Jailhouse Rock,” but Presley could never have written and sung “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Walk the Line is based on Cash’s two autobiographies, but it leaves out the intellectual curiosity, religious guilt, and self-doubt that make Cash’s story unique. Instead Walk offers a generic tale that could apply to any musician with a drug problem, a troubled marriage, an unsympathetic record company, and the need for a comeback.
That said, Mangold delivers the formula superbly. The stunning opening-credits sequence begins with a crow landing near the guards on the quiet stone walls of Folsom Prison. A faint throb is heard, and the pulse gets louder and louder as the camera crosses the courtyard, slips through the iron gates, and enters the prison’s fenced-in cafeteria, where a sea of blue-shirted prisoners clap and stomp to Cash’s band.
Eventually, Phoenix climbs on that stage and says, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Phoenix bears a reasonable resemblance to Cash, and if the script doesn’t allow him to capture the real man, it does allow him to fulfill the primary requirement of any show-biz picture: He convinces us that he truly is a star. When Phoenix holds his acoustic guitar high up on his chest, leans into the microphone, and purrs that he’s living in the “Home of the Blues,” it’s easy to understand why every teenage girl in the high-school auditorium wants to rescue him. And when he flirts with June Carter, it’s just as easy to understand why she keeps giving him another chance after every screwup.
Witherspoon doesn’t look much like June Carter, but she does have the Carter Family daughter’s comic pizazz. That’s not surprising, but it is a revelation to see how well Witherspoon handles the script’s dramatic side. She captures Carter’s lust as well as her religious reservations, and then demonstrates how the two could coexist in the same moment.
The other characters are mere caricatures—Waylon Payne, the son of country stars Sammi Smith and Jody Payne, plays Lewis; Shooter Jennings plays his father, Waylon—and they all sing their own vocals. Needless to say, none is as good as the real thing—except Witherspoon, who’s a decidedly better singer than the notoriously off-key Carter. This approach adds to the performance’s conviction but undercuts the music’s power, and renders the soundtrack album the ultimate example of superfluity.
Early on, Mangold refrains from overexplanation. He shows two Memphis shoeshine boys slapping their rags in time, but doesn’t call attention to the fact that the image shows up several scenes later in Cash’s song “Get Rhythm.” He doesn’t have Cash explain why he’s writing “Folsom Prison Blues” at an Air Force base in Germany or have Carter explain why she’s writing “Ring of Fire” backstage. Later on, though, Mangold boils away the subtlety to reduce the story to just two factors: drugs and forbidden love. There was much more to Cash’s story, and Walk the Line is an opportunity squandered.