East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Walk the Line: "My name is Joaquin. How do you do? Now you die!" [movie note]

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold, from the autobiographies of Johnny Cash
Directed by James Mangold

There's an amazing 1972 recording of Cash reading the Gettyburg Address: unless Lincoln comes back, I'll never hear anyone make that document mean so much. Letting Phoenix do the singing makes him frontrunner for his Oscar, but it's an artistic mistake: Cash's authoritah is irreproducible. Phoenix, to his credit, captures the development of Cash's vocal style: at first barely distinctive at first, he has an epiphany in Sam Phillips's studio (that's the movie's version) and becomes far more expressive. But when Phoenix reverbs his notes inside his mouth, as Cash did, he loses clarity, which is death since Cash was all about putting the words across.

Witherspoon, who would get her Oscar even if they dubbed her with Kris Kristofferson, has the advantage of playing a lesser-known, and lesser (if still likable) artist. She does an acceptable imitation of June Carter's vocal style, although Carter's early recordings had a self-parodic component that doesn't turn up here. With musical accomplishment levelled, June seems like the special one: both effervescent and tough-minded (and yet she's neither the first or the last such superwoman to leave a couple of broken marriages in her wake). So we're left with a love story: hangdog John spends a decade chasing after the girl he used to listen to on the radio as a kid, but must overcome obstacles like their separate marriages, her evangelical beliefs, his addictions and the assholish behaviour that they induce. Their chemistry is terrific; from the moment they're first (literally) entangled we're sure they oughta be together, thoughts perhaps coloured by our knowlede of how it turned out. Only in this vision, June, attracted from the start, really grows to love him not because he's Johnny Cash, but because he's so damn persistent. All you stalkers, there's hope yet.

Cashing in

If you like Joaquin singing Cash, you'll love Cash singing Cash. The easiest point of entry is through his Sun recordings from the Fifties, e.g. The Sun Years (Rhino, 1990). You could argue that at this point he's sui generis, or you could say he's inventing folk rock. The next forty-something years of his career are inconsistent -- unlike George Jones, he needed strong material, and he dried up after his classic summation Man in Black:

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

The recent 4CD The Legend (Columbia/Legacy) organises the good stuff as well as anything has. His final studio album was his best: American IV: The Man Comes Around leads with prophecy worthy of Revelations, follows that with "Hurt" and then saunters through the songs he felt he had to give one more shot while he still could. The culmination: with friends and family, "We'll Meet Again".


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