March 12, 2006

Man in Black

Johnny Cash has always loomed large in my life.

When I was a child, a friend of my mother's had a life-sized cutout of Mr. Cash in her house. She also played Cash's music non-stop (along with other country music). Although my childhood tastes were more pop, there was something about Cash's voice that spoke to me - a straightforward, no-nonsense baritone that hit the right emotional centers. It was a voice that sounded lived in, and that could tell much with very little. It suggested that the man's life would make an excellent movie.

It's just too bad that Walk the Line isn't that movie.

It tries, though, to encapsulate the early rise, fall, and restart of Cash's career, from his Sun Records days to the infamous concert at Folsom Prison. It also tells the story of his relationship with his second wife, June Carter (their son executive produced the film). You'd think it would make for great viewing...unfortunately, it seems more like a bad dramatization of VH1: Behind the Music. All the "high points" are there: the early successes and bad behavior on the road; the unsupportive spouse, the wild affairs, the hot-and-cold running romance, the inevitable addiction - the script seems to settle into familiar patterns, so much so that this could have been run as a movie-of-the-week.

Another weak link is the acting, which tries way too hard but comes up short. Joaquin Phoenix may have Cash's mannerisms down, but vocally, he sounds more like Sinatra with a bad cold. And Reese Witherspoon does give an Oscar-winning's just too bad she seems to have plagiarized it from Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. (I've heard the real June Carter, and sadly, Witherspoon acts as if she's channelling Mr. Haney from Green Acres. It's close to stereotyping, folks).

Finally, the worst crime this movie commits is that it shows a total lack of understanding of Cash's music. A key scene in Ray shows us how Ray Charles mixed gospel and blues and gave us the cornerstone of his music. De-lovely shows how much of Cole Porter's life ended up reflected in his music. Although we see the early loss that drove Cash, we also have no idea why his music endures. (Listen to it yourself, and you get a good sense of why - the music here is lifeless, bloodless, and dull, everything Cash's music was not). You know when the guy they hire to play Elvis Presley sounds nothing like the real Presley, you're in trouble.

My advice - read Cash's autobiography, if you want some particulars. Otherwise, stick with the music - you'll learn a lot more, and it's money well spent. Otherwise, you can pass on this film.

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