Before 50 Cent, we had Cash.
"Killed a man in Reno."
"Just to watch him ... die?"
Johnny Cash wrote that.
The question mark disappeared when the song was eventually titled "Folsom Prison Blues." But it was there at the beginning, and the lyric just leaped from this gloomy young church-going Southern man's subconsciousness, and the casualness of its delivery, and harshness of its sentiment, slapped him back.
Among the pleasures of Walk the Line, a thoroughly conventional music-legend biopic with a pair of thoroughly transcendent performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash, is the little surprised smile on Phoenix when Johnny writes that famous, and infamously mean, couplet. It came before he had a career as anything but an Air Force pilot. He was stationed in Germany, sitting in an empty hangar, nursing a high lonesome, allowing his mind to wander across his cheap guitar.
The smile is smart.
It doesn't reach for significance. Walk the Line may land in a lot of the same Famous-Lives muck that Ray did; a contradictory muck that tells us a man is unique but that his story is just like the story of other great men. But the one trap it avoids, for a while at least, is simplification. Maybe Cash smiled. Maybe he put his guitar down and stepped away slowly, certain it was possessed. But with one undeniably great line, he glimpsed the rest of his life, and even if the character behind it wasn't him, it was who Johnny Cash was meant to play.
It's that blink in time great artists get once, perhaps twice, the instant they know how they are different. The genius of Johnny Cash was born in that hangar, and the point director James Mangold makes with Phoenix's smile is that the myth is, in fact, no more mythical than the man himself was from another planet. The life itself wasn't even as romantic as we'd like to believe; though it was as romantically hard. Inevitably, fame and drugs and touring did their worst, and those dark nights of the soul would not get any darker than they would for the Man in Black.
On the other hand, to anyone familiar with musical biopics, at least since Lady Sings the Blues, none of this comes as a shock. Adapted from a pair of autobiographies with input from Johnny and June before their deaths, the film begins with the camera gliding through the Folsom County Prison. Cash would make one of the best-selling albums of all time there, but Cash himself would never do hard time, despite the outlaw image.
We wind through cell blocks and across prison yards and follow the distant thump, thump of stomping boots and clapping hands. It gets louder as the camera gets closer to the stage; it's a galvanizing opening for a movie that could have been fashioned as a straight musical - perhaps about that moment in American music when country, blues, and rock met at a crossroads. Instead, we're pulled out of the scene and relocated to a flashback of Cash's rural Arkansas childhood. I think I groaned. Here was the usual: indifferent parents, tragedy that alters his outlook on life, and naturally, trails of pretty dust, kicked up to lend authenticity.
A messy life, fit into a mold.
If Walk the Line has a single huge problem, it is that it's caught between retracing the tired old steps of music stardom (childhood, ambition, fame, infidelity, drugs, downfall, redemption, and peace), and playing Cash as more dangerous, as more of the outlaw, than his contemporaries, who claimed a similar life. (Among his self-destructive friends in the film, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, and Elvis get the most entertaining scenes, snapshots from a vagabond life of playing roadhouses and shabby theaters in crumbling towns.) The myth of Cash is not easy to simultaneously make real and demolish.
But the meanness of those lyrics came from somewhere. Mangold, however, cannot avoid that old thing where a key moment in life explains the way a man acts the way he does. (A smile only works once.) It's the disease of the musical biopic, the obsessive dissection of an event that supposedly led to specific characteristics. Musicals get away with refrains like this, but, again, Walk the Line doesn't have the ambition that demands. Instead, Cash's brother dies in a freak circular saw accident, and their father (played by Robert Patrick) takes a look at Johnny and says:
"The devil did this. I know because he took the wrong son."
Is that why Cash wrote lyrics as caustic as, "She was low down and trifling/ And she was cold and mean/ Kind of make me want/ To grab my submachine"?
Or was Cash, in fact, more like 50 Cent - a pop assemblage of reality and the self-made man crafting his own image? Anyway, it worked. At some point in the past decade, whoever it is who decides to lower the velvet rope and admit a new icon to the Pantheon of Cool, decided Cash was overdue. He became the original gangsta rapper. Which is ironic, because if there was a moment when a local police department might have stepped in and tried shutting down a movie of his life, when Cash was most notorious, it would have been back in the 1960s. (Cops patrolling theaters, incidentally, is not entirely new. It's as old as Blackboard Jungle and the juvenile delinquency scare.)
Walk the Line cuts out before getting to that late-career reassurance. Indeed, it walks more confidently when it steers from the myth-making that burdens it.
The film's a blast, in fact, when Mangold sucks it up and admits he's really making another square biopic with two cute kids tearing it up. The only constant in the film, as in Cash's life, was his relationship with June Carter. She was musical royalty, a child star before Johnny even picked up a guitar, and Phoenix plays their stage scenes together with the right mix of charisma and humbleness. If June was twice the performer Johnny was, the same goes for Witherspoon and Phoenix. (Let's just consider the Oscar race for best actor and actress over and done, right here.)
It's a hoot watching Phoenix find Cash's baritone in his own voice; the actor (as Witherspoon does) sings every note in the film. But it's Witherspoon's picture. She doesn't go for mimicry but emotional truth. Which doesn't mean dark truths. A Tennessee native, swinging dark locks, she whoops and hollers with an intrinsic understanding of how a stage persona gets in the way of real life. She is unfailingly polite, and springy, but that title, Walk the Line, is as much about her as it is Johnny. He's married when they meet. She's newly divorced, not a small scandal to rural fans.
"Because you're mine," he sings, "I walk the line." The film walks squarely down the middle of the road. Witherspoon and Phoenix see these lives more as a head-on collision, a loving one.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com