Walk the Line

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

12 September

Johnny Cash dies, 2003

On this day in 2003, Johnny Cash died, aged 71. A star from the mid-50s, after discharge from the army, until his death, the baritone Cash was known as a country singer though unlike many a country act he was a Christian who aligned himself with the sinners rather than the saints. Dressing in black rather than the more ostenatious garb favoured by country compadres, he was also unusual for the way he publically acknowledged the breadth of his taste – he made an album with Bob Dylan in the 1960s, his two-season TV show in the late 60s featured the likes of Joe Tex (soul), Neil Diamond (pop), Louis Armstrong (jazz), Joni Mitchell (folk) and the Staples Singers (gospel) alongside the more expected country names such as Tammi Wynette and Merle Haggard. Later he’d team up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, sing with U2, cover Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. His last hit before he died was a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt, the accompanying video a painfully honest acknowledgement of impending death. After the late-career renaissance masterminded by producer Rick Rubin, it made him popular all over again by concentrating on his real asset – his voice.

Walk the Line (2005, dir: James Mangold)

Biopics often flop about like a landed fish, gasping for a throughline. Not Walk the Line – it decides early on that it’s going to tell the story of Johnny Cash through the narrative of his romance with June Carter, and sticks to that decision, tucking all the biographical business – and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis – round the edges. It has three other real pluses – Reese Witherspoon as the hyper-optimistic June Carter, Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black, and the input of T Bone Burnett as honcho in charge of music. In many ways similar to the previous year’s Ray, the biopic of Ray Charles, it paints its hero as a troubled individual with a dead brother choking up his conscience and a tendency to reach for drugs to celebrate the good times and to dull the bad. Jamie Foxx is probably a more convincing Ray Charles than Joaquin Phoenix is a Johnny Cash – Phoenix doesn’t have the baritone. What he does have is Cash’s mannerisms, his stance, the same cast of shoulder and his way of swinging the guitar behind his back. And let’s not forget that Phoenix is playing the complex Johnny Cash, a sinner in his own mind, a reprobate in some ways, but from some angles a man of a heroic cast who did what he did and wasn’t swayed by others. He walked the line.

Why Watch?

  • Reese Witherspoon coasting to an Oscar
  • A soundtrack full of little known country, gospel and blues gems
  • Is it Joaquin singing or is it Johnny?

Walk the Line – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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