Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#32: On WALK THE LINE * 11/24/05 * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * James Mangold’s terrific Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” opens just before Cash goes on-stage for the historic Folsom Prison concert on February 11, 1968, the same year he married singer June Carter. Cash’s pre-concert moment of reflection frames a flashback that rapidly sketches in his Arkansas boyhood, an Air Force hitch in Germany, his first marriage and start at Sun Records in 1950’s Memphis. But the real heart of the film is the pivotal six years before Folsom Prison, spanning Cash’s first encounter with June backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, their early music tours and problematic courtship (both were married to others), and his recovery from amphetamines. Most reviewers praise Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon as the leads, but some grumble that “Walk the Line” focuses too much on the romance’s complications at the music’s expense. I think the literalism of this complaint ignores where Cash’s music comes from, a tradition of overlapping family relationships, performance & stewardship of the music itself through generations. For many in their original Southern audience, the power of Johnny Cash marrying into the “first family of country music” stems from this tradition. The closest thing to it we have locally would be the “Old Tyme Fiddlin’” families of the North Country in northern New York. And for Cash, this involved women – his mother Carrie, who passed on shape notes to him, June herself, and Mother Maybelle Carter, who encouraged their relationship. If you’ve seen the film “Almost Famous,” imagine your average 60’s rock star taking his in-laws, and later his children, along on tour, as Cash often did. There’s a deceptively simple scene early on, when June Carter stops in a small-town hardware store for a fishing pole. Before it’s over, she’ll run into Johnny on another aisle. They compare coloring books their respective small daughters might like, and then go fishing. It’s Johnny’s first time with a store-bought pole and she shows him how to cast the line. June is often the one teaching him, though later photos frequently show her leaning into his sheltering bulk. This scene also recalls – and seems to suggest that June’s presence will begin healing – another summer afternoon that still haunts the grown man, when his brother was fatally injured elsewhere and Johnny blamed because he off fishing. But, I’m ahead of myself. Back in that creaky-floored hardware store it’s still Bible Belt America, even if it’s the Sixties elsewhere – before Johnny and June can go fishing, a store clerk accosts June with a cutting remark about June’s recent divorce. So far, the story has established June as decent and self-possessed. But she seems to wilt here, deprived of the buffering distance of the footlights, answering, “I’m sorry I let you down, ma’am.” There’s a tantalizing tension, however, in wondering whether, as critic David Sterritt has suggested, this might instead be June simply performing “June Carter” without missing a beat. Either way, I should say here that this movie doesn’t let anyone down. Neither does Reese Witherspoon – who finds it perplexing that everyone’s so surprised now that she can act. The hardware store and fishing trip scenes show struggles that Carter and Cash faced as members of a community that was sometimes contradictory, even harshly judgmental – and at odds in some ways with the social turmoil and musical innovation of the Sixties. Certainly there are more dramatic scenes, like Johnny’s pill withdrawal, when Carter’s family guard him from drug dealers with shotguns. But I like the small details of how these two haltingly found each other before the fame and reverence set in. There’s even a Thanksgiving at Johnny’s new , empty house, when the Carters bring dinner in a couple covered baskets, set behind the cab in their pick-up truck’s bed. Another thing: having Phoenix and Witherspoon actually sing pays off gloriously. Mangold says he insisted on this risky course in hopes of evoking on-screen the legendary chemistry of Cash and Carter on-stage. The film’s exhilarating duets are pure, sashaying abundance. Yes I know they’re not really Johnny and June. I know some of the details got left out. But in those moments on-stage together, I don’t care. There’s an emotional truth generated which is why we come to art in the first place. After all, didn’t the music save Johnny and June? It saves the movie too, and explains why, for his part, Cash always looked – even in his later photos – like he still couldn’t quite believe his luck that she was with him. In 1997, after Cash published his autobiography, Terry Gross interviewed him on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” She asked him about marrying into a whole family who already understood “the performing life.” His answer tells me that Mangold’s merging of music & family was intuitively correct. Cash said this: “Well, there’s something about families singing together that is just better than any other groups you can pick up or make. If it’s family, if it’s blood-on-blood, then it’s gonna be better. The voices, singing their parts, are going to be tighter, and they’re going to be on pitch. It’s blood-line on blood-line.” * Nancy Keefe Rhodes * (850)