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Walk the Line

Director James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, has a bevy of things going against it. For one, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are either “give or take” performers depending on the project in question. Another issue is Mangold himself, who has failed to deliver anything of real substance or merit to date.

However the biggest obstacle facing all parties involved is, perhaps, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. Regardless of having Cash’s biographies to pool from, how does a film capture a mythical figure like Cash without falling into the conventional trappings of typical celebrity biopics?

It would seem nearly impossible to succeed considering these odds, yet somehow Mangold and company rise to the occasion, producing a film that not only embodies Johnny Cash, but bleeds Cash from its very pores. We meet Johnny Cash (Phoenix) amidst his pinnacle live recording “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.” His band rambles along, their beat churning along like a locomotive as Cash stands backstage lost in thought. A voice calls out to him, but he is lost in thought with a finger prodding a table saw blade.

This is the door opening up into Cash’s life for viewers to peer through, and although flashbacks are usually considered to be weak storytelling devices, somehow the convention suits the story being told. One of the primary reasons this works so well is that most of Cash’s life was filled with torment, regret, and pain stemming from sins predicated upon events in his past. His music was filled with reflection, telling a story that unfolded raw emotion in an open and honest fashion, so it almost necessary to engage Cash at a moment of contemplative introspection.

Born J.R. Cash, Johnny’s struggle with remorse began at age twelve, when his brother Jim, the only person in his life who seemed to understand him, was stripped away by an early death. The Cash family was stricken with strife early on with a patriarch named Ray (Robert Patrick) who drowned his financial woes in excessive liquid comfort and exercised frustration with physical and verbal abuse. J.R.’s love of music only stoked the ire of his father, while Jim could do no wrong in his eyes. It is only natural that Jim’s death by way of table saw be blamed on J.R., especially since his youthful exuberance had led him fishing on the day of Jim’s unfortunate accident.

To Cash’s father, Johnny was destined to fail. His love of music did nothing to bring food to the table, so his father believed that he was fated to do nothing with his life. Ray’s words haunted Johnny for the bulk of his life, and we see not only Johnny’s continued rejection, but his continuous pursuit of Ray’s approval throughout the film.

James Mangold and Gill Dennis’ script chooses to take a steady and persistent pace rather than a flash bang of overindulgent cutting and breakneck exposition. Johnny’s career is unfolded rather exploded, and the script chooses key moments in Cash’s life to sink into and dwell in order to establish the mood and tone of not only the film, but the man himself.

We get snippets of Cash’s stint in the Air Force, the influence of the B-movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison on his songwriting, and the details of his rocky first marriage to wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin). Cash’s music dreams are insatiable, and despite protests from Vivian, his determination eventually pays off. The appropriate notes from Cash’s life are hit upon with perfect pitch, and one of the notable moments is his audition with Sun Studios legend, Sam Phillips.

This brings us back to the potential pitfalls originally facing Walk the Line in its chosen leads. The buzz on the street is that both Joaquin and Reese were handpicked by their counterparts, Johnny Cash and June Carter respectively. Whether this is true remains a product of media hype, although after screening Walk the Line it remains hard to deny its plausibility. Both bury themselves so completely within character, performing each song with such conviction and authenticity, that the act gets lost in the presentation. These two cease to exist at points within the film, and only Cash and Carter remain.

Walk the Line will no doubt garner comparisons to Ray, not only due to early Oscar buzz, but on behalf of performance and recreation alone. The truth is, despite Jamie Foxx’s excellent turn as legendary piano man Ray Charles, this film succeeds in a way that Ray could never hope to live up to. The focus, like Cash himself, is not on the music, but on the man.

Johnny Cash’s distinct sound emanated from the degree of exposure to the man behind the sound in his music. He wasn’t just singing up there, he was exposing himself; he was telling bits and pieces of his life.

As dark, corrupted, and flawed as they may be, they were there for all to hear and relate to. Which is partly why Cash’s kinship to prison felt so authentic, having lived the majority of his life feeling as though he were trapped in some sort of emotion prison, he had no problem relating to those serving time in places like San Quentin and Folsom.

The myth of the man is nearly impossible to recreate, and yet this film manages to do just that. Years ago, with very little knowledge of Johnny Cash and only a vague connection to his music, a friend imparted a story about Johnny that is unforgettable. He explained that Cash’s song, "Ring of Fire," was actually written following a major burn for the musician, having battled a lifestyle rife with addiction and partying,

Cash supposedly ventured out into the woods intoxicated on drugs and booze. Smoking a cigarette, it was said that he passed out only to awake in the midst of a fire, providing the singer with a very clear image of his own state of burned out depravity.

This, of course, is untrue, as the famous song was actually penned by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, but there is an element of truth buried within the myth. The song was inspired by Cash’s slow burn into depravity. It represented the torment Carter felt over her forbidden love of Cash despite his battle with his inner demons.

In a way, Cash was amidst a blazing fire that was his life, and a piece of the blaze can be glimpsed in Walk the Line.


Mario Anima

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