This Man Does Not Come Around

by Aaron on November 11, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Director James Mangold orchestrates this biopic about The Man In Black, Johnny Cash a bit like a conductor who doesn’t really understand what the notes are supposed to mean. Joaquin Phoenix takes on Cash in an uneven portrayal that focuses more on Cash’s drug use than oh, say the 100+ hits Johnny Cash had during the 50’s and 60’s. Reese Witherspoon fares better as the love of Johnny’s life, June Carter, but even her spirited performance can’t float a film that takes a man’s singularly unique life and turns it into movie of the week fare. Less treacly than the last high-profile music biopic (Ray), but a lot less engaging to boot. Fans familiar with Cash’s life will find themselves repeatedly groaning over inaccuracies (not to mention the nigh unthinkable omissions), and non fans will miss out both on Cash’s signature voice (Phoenix does all the singing) as well as any broader understanding of Cash’s music (seeing as you only hear maybe 6 or 7 Cash tunes in the film).

Walk the Line
2 & 1/2 Stars

Oh man, do I hate musical biography as a film genre.  My love of film and my love of music seem never destined to be satisfied at the same time.  Walk the Line is a film I’ve been wary of since I first head the crew listing, but I felt the same way about Ray.  Unfortunately, Walk the Line failed to win me over like Ray did.  Which is truly disappointing for someone like me who, while owning 85% of Ray Charles catalog, owns a hell of a lot more Johnny Cash records.  I could spend a lot of space going on about Walk the Line and what it should have been, but let’s just discuss what’s ultimately delivered.

As much as I hate to go on about the similarities, Walk the Line apes the structure of Ray by starting out with a young Johnny Cash (Ridge Canipe) living in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration community of Dyess, Arkansas, where his family picks cotton in order to survive. Just enough time is spent here to show the tragic loss of Johnny’s brother Jack before jumping ahead to the 19 year old Cash (Phoenix) heading off to the Air Force, where he learned to play the guitar and wrote his first few songs (including Folsom Prison Blues). Jump ahead four more years to Cash married to his first wife Vivian, schlepping along trying to sell appliances door-to-door while playing with his pals (who would later become the famed Tennessee Two, otherwise known as Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) and Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and finally convincing Sam Phillips to record them on his Sun Records label. Another jump and Cash is on the road with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, tearing up the stage as part of one of the best tour lineups in history. And it was there that (according to this film, at least) the dual whammy of amphetamines and June Carter (Witherspoon) came into Johnny’s life.  Over the next 15 years, Johnny pines for June, pops pills, pines some more, pops more pills, gets popped for pills, loses his family, pines real hard, hits the cellar of pill addiction, and wins both his sobriety and the hand of June in marriage. 

Seriously, folks.  This is a love story/battling addiction film that just happens to be about Johnny and June Carter Cash.  It’s like the Grand Ole Opry version of When A Man Loves a Woman, and that’s just one of the many, many missteps this film makes.  Cash’s career is never really explored, nor is his lifelong friendships with some of the biggest names in music.  No mention of his early film work (Door to Door Manic! Night Rider!), nor any real exploration of the man himself.  We’re treated to only the slightest of scenes where Johnny is hanging out with his tourmates, and worst of all we’re treated to so very few Johnny Cash songs.  Which, considering the baffling choice director James Mangold made in having Phoenix sing the songs himself, may have been a blessing in disguise.  Not that Phoenix can’t sing, in fact he’s got a very passable voice, but it’s hard to convey what made Cash’s music so iconic when we’re denied the signature voice that delivered them in the first place.  Phoenix only passingly attempts to capture Cash’s speaking voice, so the argument can be made that having Cash’s own recordings wouldn’t have worked, but that only highlights my problems with the film overall.  Accuracy is repeatedly slighted for a more Hollywood product.

I’m not particularly fond of Witherspoon, but I’ll admit she did a knock-out job portraying June Carter.  Her natural corniness dovetails beautifully with June’s flighty, sassy comedian stage presence, and her singing does a admirable job conveying June’s style.  She’s the real heart of this film, emotionally and morally, so I’ll gladly conceed my casting misgivings were all for naught.  Well, in her case at least.  Robert Patrick handles his thankless job as Cash’s stern father well, and in fact it took me a couple of scenes to even recognize him.  The man just oozed dour Southerner.

There’s nothing really outstanding about the look and feel of the film overall, as not enough time is spent with any one scene to really set a cohesive mood, outside of the ‘important’ scenes.  It feels like a TV movie for the most part, albeit one with a higher budget than most. 

I can’t find too much nice to say about Walk the Line, as it’s hard to forgive a film that so badly portrays such an iconic figure.  The real story of Johnny Cash’s life is both fascinating and important, as he was at the forefront of a musical wave that changed the landscape of American music, but you wouldn’t know that from this film.  If you’re really wanting to learn about Johnny Cash, my suggestion would be to find the PBS American Masters program on him, or just read his excellent autobiography. Sure it’ll take a little longer than sitting through Walk the Line, but at least you’ll understand why his life would be worth a movie in the first place. 

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