Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 06, 2005 9:58 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
Good solid stuff, have yourself a cry

[For the flavor of the man and his art, go here:]

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
(The Man in Black)

Johnny Cash. What a man, what a legend, what a voice! Who could fill his shoes? Who could sing his songs? Joaquin Phoenix gives it a good try. He's got qualifications not too many actors today have got. He looks like the young Cash, and he's paid some of the same dues. He too grew up in poverty singing on the street to earn his supper. He too lost too young his golden brother, like Cash, but to the drugs that brought Cash down and sent him to jail. And of course he can sing. Like Reese Witherspoon as performing partner and ultimate life partner June Carter, he's capable of singing all his own songs, and he does as she does. Now, nobody but Cash could write those songs and those lyrics. Phoenix has the conviction and passion when he delivers them, but you can't fake the performing style of a man who's spent thousands of hours on the road. And of course you can't fake that sad deep nasal voice. But Phoenix has a sadness about him, even the air of a loser, one who has suffered and struggles on, and that's the essential Johnny Cash.

Walk the Line, like most biopics, is conventional. It goes through the paces and passes the essential rubrics, the childhood traumas, the big chance, the sidetracks, the hazards of life on the road, the disintegrating marriage, the substance abuse, the humiliations and the fame that comes anyway. There's the tragic death of the brother, the rejection of the father, the pill problem, the wife problem, the road, the jail time, the prison concerts, the bottom, then the proposal to June, and her acceptance. For all that, like many biopics of the musical kind, it's only a piece of the life. You just have to hope it's a good solid piece sliced out of the middle of the pie. It ends around 1968, when he married June Carter. He had another thirty-five years of life to go. Probably Cash's substance problem at its worse went beyond beer and pills, but that's all we see.

Highlights of the film: When Cash in audition for Sun Records drops his tepid gospel songs and galvanizes the room with songs he wrote himself in the Air Force; when he performs the first time in a California prison. When he proposes to June Carter onstage and she reluctantly, finally agrees. Cash crashing a big expensive tractor into a creek and June going down to pull him out. And any song, sung with the guitar held high like a shotgun.

This is a solid music flick. One song comes after another. It's a conventional movie, but it has emotional resonance and strength. We see the houses get bigger, but the film goes only a slight sense what an enormous success Cash was -- as many hit singles as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, more than Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson (including his Jackson 5 hits), the Four Seasons, David Bowie, the Supremes, Elton John, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, the combined totals of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel, Martin Gaye, B.B. King….the list goes on. In 1969 he was outselling the Beatles. If they were more famous than God, Johnny was God.

I hear the train a comin'
it's rolling round the bend
and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on
but that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Anton..
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
now every time I hear that whistle I hang my head and cry. . .
I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
they're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
but those people keep a movin'
and that's what tortures me...

Well if they'd free me from this prison,
if that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move just a little further down the line
far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
and I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.....
(Folsom Prison Blues)

If you listen to the songs of Johnny Cash himself you will probably know all you ever need to know about the man and the world he encompasses like nobody else. He's a storyteller, and he speaks between the lines too. Incidentally, he's a hell of a writer of lyrics. He gives Bob Dylan a run for his money. No wonder they got together on Nashville Skyline. (He and June had already covered several Dylan songs years before with great success.) Walk the Line is reverent and heartfelt but only begins to detail the scope of this remarkable, hugely influential singer-songwriter and cultural figure.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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