Country, rock and trans-genre star Johnny Cash’s cold hand brushed the world of the living from his grave one last time through his filmed biography “Walk the Line.”He and his wife June Carter Cash, both deceased in 2003, worked for seven years on the script with director James Mangold, staking out the story of Cash’s early career and his turbulent love affair with Carter while he was married to Vivian Cash, his first wife.
Mangold insisted the actors use their own singing voices, and the duo cast of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon – who last Sunday took home an Academy Award for her performance – both capture the appropriate raw, throaty edge and bright-eyed corniness, respectively. Phoenix developed the role with a masterful progression from an awkward novice hoarsely tapping the low notes to a deep, raw-voiced music icon.
Opening briefly with Cash backstage at the 1968 Folsom Prison recording, then flashing back to his childhood on a cotton plantation in depression-era Arkansas, and ending shortly after the pivotal Folsom show, the movie encompasses the roots of Cash’s greatness and degeneracy, ending at the inception of his calmer, drug-free life married to Carter. Since greatness must be a herd animal, it touched Cash and those who shared a stage with him during his first tours – Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others, all personified onscreen by real life country, blues and rock artists.
The movie fails and succeeds in the same ways Cash’s life may have. Because its plot depended on history, perhaps only Cash himself is to blame for having spawned such a heap of clichés on the big screen, but he is also responsible for the music that could hold an audience’s attention even without the story between the songs. Fortunately, the quality of the cast competes evenly with the music for the audience’s approval, and Joaquin Phoenix shines in the role of the Man in Black.
Cash’s clichéd life begins with his childhood as a cotton picker, which prompts the classic “poor boy who follows his dream and makes good” plotline, followed in the same early scenes by his father’s admission that he loves Johnny’s brother more and Cash’s later struggle with drug addiction, which set us up for both the “pill-popping rock star” archetype and the perhaps more nuanced stereotype of the conflicted man whose drive and self-destruction stem from the pursuit and denial of his father’s love. Add to that the absent husband and father Cash becomes while touring and it’s a life like a choose-your-own-plot for an Academy Award nomination – and the movie earned five of them.
The seeds of the lyrics about the down-trodden, regretful or hopeful poor and criminals are planted in flash-quick scenes before they surface in a song on screen. For example, Cash sees two shoe shiners snapping their buffing rags over the shoes of their three-piece-suited clients, which later prompts “Get Rhythm (when you’ve got the blues),” the first song we hear him sing in concert.
The music is the movie’s fulcrum, and unfortunately only signature songs are subtitled for Spanish-speaking audiences. “Walk the Line”made the cut, as did “Ring of Fire,” but most of the lyrics are not translated, leaving a gaping void for Costa Ricans who need subtitles.
Those same, populist lyrics are, for those unfamiliar with the country, a profound means of examining the U.S. experience in the last century and I, as a U.S. citizen overseas, left the theater high on the reminder that, though my country is often slandered on the cultural front, it has made a worthy artistic contribution to the world: three chords and the truth. That, and cute country sayings like “three chords and the truth.”You could see the movie just for the music.