The evening began with an impromptu spaghetti dinner. Satanica and I were making a batch for ourselves around 6pm, with everyone else scheduled to arrive between 7-7:30. Pvt. Joker and Dr. Jekyll arrived early so we cooked up some veggies to go with it, and by the time all was ready to go Oblisk the Tormentor had shown up as well. Pvt. Joker informed us of his exploits at the recent Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Chicago, where he picked up a Tom Savini-signed magnet for our fridge. Far out.
Trixie Blowpop and Baygean appeared a bit later, and after dinner we milled around with Bud Light and margaritas before filing down into the Cellar Cinema for the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line.
To be honest, I am not all that familiar with Cash’s music or his life story. Like Ray Charles, Cash is an icon whose presence has always been peripheral to my sphere of interests. Therefore I can’t really judge how true the film is to its subject(s), or how much Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon, who did their own singing, sound like their real-life counterparts.
The opening moments lay out a traumatic childhood for Cash, which has a parallel in the life of star Phoenix, possibly influencing his identification with the role. Young Cash lives in the shadow of father’s favorite son, older brother Jack (Lucas Till), who dies in a table saw accident. Cash grows up, enlists in the army and is sent to Germany during the Korean War, where he buys a guitar and discovers his passion for music.
Upon returning to the States, he marries sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), has a couple of kids and puts together a band. The big time comes knocking after Cash records one of his original tunes at a local recording studio, a song inspired by a newspaper article on Folsom Prison in California. Soon the band is on tour with Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whom Cash was fond of even in her earliest days on stage.
June is also married, and the two strike up a friendship. The film contrasts Cash’s touring life with June against his home life with Vivian, who becomes frazzled looking after the kids and maintaining the house, and expresses disinterest in hearing of his musical exploits.
Fame and constant touring leads to groupies and drug addiction, and the film more or less falls into the standard rock star bio, with scenes of Cash staggering around drunkenly on stage, getting arrested and pursuing an attraction to the oft married/oft divorced June. This, of course, alienates his long suffering wife and results in divorce.
Dad (Robert Patrick) arrives during various points in the film to do little else than belittle and berate his successful son, but none so more than during a Thanksgiving dinner. This lead our guest Jekyll, now Ed Hyde after hitting a bottle of his secret potion, to observe loudly that family dinner scenes in movies never go well.
June becomes Cash's guardian angel, eventually locking him in a room and forcing him to quit drugs cold turkey. Her family even chases away a drug pusher with shotguns. Once cleaned up, Cash decides to make a live recording out of Folsom Prison based on the large volume of fan mail he receives from there. The record goes on to become one of the best sellers of its time.
June continues to reject his marriage proposals until he proposes to her publicly, on stage. She agrees and the two live happily ever after.
I can see why Reese Witherspoon won the Best Actress Oscar for her work here. Her June Carter is patient and likeable, and she becomes our key to understanding Johnny Cash. We don’t see what she sees in a lout like Cash – who is depicted as an absentee father, adulterer, drug addict, and criminal – but she clearly sees something. We like her, so we like him by proxy.
That the film is better or worse than any other rock star biopic depends largely on your foreknowledge of Cash or appreciation of his music. Not knowing much about the personal history of the man left me only to judge the character portrayed on screen, which did not garner much of my identification or sympathy.
After the film, Hyde went off on a rant about how Hollywood films glorify characters who throw marriage vows to the wind in pursuit of “the right one”, potentially influencing the myriad guests who appear on the Jerry Springer Show. I defended this film, which doesn’t necessarily glorify Cash’s situation and spends some time depicting the toll his lifestyle takes on Vivian and his children. Maybe there was something in the air but there weren’t a whole lot of character witnesses for Johnny Cash at the Saturday Night Freak Show.
The director, James Mangold, came onto my radar with the Sylvester Stallone drama Copland (1997). He followed up notably with Girl: Interrupted (1999), and the John Cusack slasher flick Identity (2003). His style here does not call attention to itself, instead allowing the performances to carry the film.
Next up - Sin City