1. This is the best biopic Hollywood has produced in decades. I’ve always been a sucker for movies about singer/songwriters but let’s be honest—most of them are pretty awful. The worst scenes are those in which the person is supposedly writing his or her most well known song, always in a single sitting. I remember watching a scene in a mediocre film about Cole Porter in which he comes up with one of his biggest hits: “Night and…night and…let’s see…Night and DAY, yes that’s it…you are my love…no, that’s not right…hmm, you are the ONE! Yes!” There are none of those ridiculous moments in the exquisite new film “Walk the Line.” Instead of a lot of scenes showing Johnny Cash and June Carter writing their biggest hits, we see them living the songs with such passion that it’s only natural their experiences morph into the now famous lyrics. If there was a single false note in this film I couldn’t find it. Kendall, who is highly critical of most films made after 1950, liked it so much that she literally wanted to stay and see it over again. I haven’t seen her that excited about a movie since the original “Thin Man.”
2. And the Oscar goes to…Joaquin Phoenix. The cool thing about a film career that starts when you’re a kid is that you can track the growth of that person as an artist. I’ve enjoyed Phoenix’s on-screen presence ever since I saw him at age 15 in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (when his first name was Leaf). Apparently Johnny Cash hand-picked Joaquin for the role before he died in 2003 and he couldn’t have chosen better. Just like Sissy Spacek’s great turn as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (a wonderful movie that was cut from the same cloth as “Walk the Line”), Phoenix doesn’t try to impersonate Johnny Cash, he simply inhabits him. This role has Oscar-bait written all over it and for once I will cheer the Academy voters. I just hope that Jamie Foxx’s win for “Ray” last year doesn’t hurt Phoenix’s chances (I can imagine the Academy folks worrying about choosing two portrayals of real-life singers in a row), especially since “Walk the Line” is a way better film than “Ray” in my opinion. A major plot point in “Walk the Line” involves the early death of Johnny Cash’s older brother Jack. This traumatic event shaped Cash’s life and career and there are many poignant scenes where Phoenix tries to express what his older brother meant to him. It’s a measure of his great performance that it took me until this morning to realize the double poignancy in hearing Joaquin Phoenix, who also lost his older brother in tragic circumstances, utter those words.
3. You will start listening to great music that you never paid attention to. I admit it, I’ve never been a big Johnny Cash fan although I used to watch his TV show in the early 1970s that I believe was taped at the Ryman Auditorium. My main memory of Cash back then was the novelty song “A Boy Named Sue” which was written by Shel Silverstein of all people. But now I’m very excited about catching up on Cash’s oeuvre. I’m sure many of the die-hard Johnny Cash fans will be irritated by the sudden trendiness of Cash’s music and feel superior that they were with him all along. So be it, I’m just happy to have the belated opportunity to discover his music.
4. Reese Witherspoon is back. Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the 1999 film “Election” blew me away. I remember walking out of the theater excited about this young actress’s future and the excellent performances we’d all get to witness. So I was saddened when she seemed to be sucked into the Hollywood juggernaut. The bigger she became, the more I missed the flash and charisma of her earliest performances. She always gave it her all but let’s just say that “Legally Blonde 2” was no “Citizen Kane.” How great that June Carter Cash, who died just a few months before Johnny Cash in 2003, also got to pick the woman who would play her in the film and that she had the infinite wisdom to see that Witherspoon had the spunk, vulnerability, and talent to pull off the job. Despite Phoenix’s near perfect performance, Reese Witherspoon comes close to walking away with the entire picture. In a part that could have been reduced to a country music caricature, Witherspoon conveys the complexities of a woman who is deeply sympathetic but light years away from being a saint. Academy voters, take note! As for the on-screen chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon—WOW! Their troubled but passionate courtship is so believable that I found myself checking the Internet to see if Witherspoon had dumped hubby Ryan Phillipe yet. (She hasn’t.) Can I give a grateful shout-out to director James Mangold for ending the film with Cash and Carter’s marriage in the late 1960s? I’m so glad they left us wanting more, more, more, and didn’t succumb to the tendency to plaster Phoenix and Witherspoon with age lines and blue hair rinses.
5. Mama Maybelle Carter. I went through a brief country music phase during college. One of my favorite local bands back then was called Special Consensus. I used to go hear them perform at the famous Clearwater Saloon (where my sister began the career that would eventually get her dubbed the “doyenne of the Chicago music scene”). We’d sing along to tunes like “Rocky Top,” “Salty Dog,” and “Glendale Train,” feeling like we were at the Grand Ole Opry and not on Lincoln Avenue listening to a bunch of mostly Jewish pre-med students who had never been south of Joliet. I made a film about the band and in the process became familiar with the famous Carter family and their wonderful matriarch, Mother Maybelle. Maybelle is played deliciously in the film by Sandra Ellis Lafferty and though her time on camera is brief she brings such a presence to the role that you’d swear she had many more scenes. I came home and immediately started listening to some bona fide Mama Maybelle recordings. Damn, that woman could sing.
6. Shooting the breeze with Jerry Lee, Elvis, and Waylon. When they start trotting out other superstar celebrities in these biopics, the groan factor can increase to intolerable levels and be so distracting that you forget what you’re watching. That woman is NO Diana Ross, you think. Are they kidding? That actress doesn't look a thing like Priscilla Presley. Buddy Holly? I think not! One delightful exception to this rule was Beverly D’Angelo’s pitch-perfect performance as Patsy Cline in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” so real and poignant (yet without a hint of sentimentality) that you couldn’t help but cry for Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn when she finds out her best friend is killed in a plane crash. “Walk the Line” contains not one, not two, but a gaggle of musician/actors playing the hugely famous singers with whom Johnny Cash toured at the beginning of his career. Standouts are Waylon Payne as a rip-roaring Jerry Lee Lewis, Tyler Hilton as a very young Elvis Presley, and Shooter Jennings playing his own father Waylon. The actors imbibe these guys with such youthful zest and talent that you have no trouble imagining them turning into the superstar versions of themselves we would later come to know.
7. My sister’s friend is in the film and he’s terrific. When my sister told me that her friend Dan Miller (!) had a part in “Walk the Line,’ I thought I’d see his name in the closing credits as something like “Man in bar.” Instead, I was shocked to see him listed at the beginning of the film just after the leads and appearing in the opening shot at Folsom Prison. Dan plays Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash’s guitar player and one of the Tennessee Two. Formerly the frontliner for “Goober and the Peas” (a great band that played my sister’s Lounge Ax dozens of times), Miller now has a band called Blanche with his gorgeous wife Tracee Mae (who gets to appear briefly in the film as Luther’s wife Birdie Perkins). From everything I’ve seen and read, Miller nails his idol Luther Perkins perfectly. Truly inspired casting. Sue tells me that Dan Miller is a substitute teacher in Detroit when he’s not performing with his band. Sorry, Motor City students, but he won’t be there for long if Hollywood gets its way.
My brother-in-law Jeff opened twice for Johnny Cash, once in Uncle Tupelo and once with Wilco. June Carter Cash was at the Uncle Tupelo gig which was in Jeff's grungier days. After spending some time chatting with the band and being the perfect country mama, she said "I just want to take you boys home with me and give you a bath!"
8. Big hair ain’t so bad after all. One thing I really appreciate in a period film is authenticity and attention to detail. I remember reading about the making of “Gone With the Wind” and being impressed that costume designer Walter Plunkett was such a stickler that he insisted on a complete array of real Civil War-era undergarments for all of the actresses in the film, including the extras, even though none of these expensive items would be visible on screen. Similarly, there are stories of Vincente Minnelli breaking the bank to get actual 1903 light fixtures and other props for “Meet Me in St. Louis” even though the MGM art department could have whipped up decent facsimiles for a fraction of the cost. The costumes and set design in “Walk the Line” ring so true that you almost feel like you’re watching a documentary. Kudos should go to the hair and make-up people who resisted the urge to go nuts with the country music big hair. Reese Witherspoon’s hairstyles do get more voluminous with every stage appearance but it never approaches caricature. Joaquin Phoenix’s hair is dead on and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley’s pompadours are flamboyant but never over the top. It’s so easy to make fun of the hairstyles of the 50s and 60s (my mother used to wear a beehive that increased her height by about a foot), especially in the South, but I think our sensibilities are changing. At least mine are. I used to cringe when I saw pictures of those tortured dos yet in “Walk the Line” I thought all the women looked smokin’ hot. C’mon Kendall, get out that teasing brush!
9. The film shows what “real” Christians are. After my recent experience with Jane Russell and some interesting discussions with a Christian blogger that I read, I am more interested than ever in the topic of religion and tolerance. There’s a great scene in “Walk the Line” in which June Carter is shopping in a department store not long after her first divorce. A sales clerk lashes into Carter, wondering how her parents even speak to her now that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family with her divorce which she calls an abomination to God. “Marriage is for life!” the saleslady screams. This is one of Reese Witherspoon’s finest moments in the film. We see her wince ever so slightly and then adopt the protective mantle of someone who’s been in the public eye her entire life. “I’m sorry I let you down, ma’am,” she replies to the woman before continuing on her way. In contrast to the intolerant sales clerk, June’s mother Maybelle displays Christian values in the deepest possible sense. She knows Johnny Cash is trouble with a capital T and yet she also sees that he is a child of God who needs help. In one scene before he and June are married, Cash is having a total meltdown in front of June's family. Instead of whisking her daughter away from this madman, Maybelle encourages June to go to Johnny to comfort him. “I can’t go down there,” June says, shocked. “You’re already there, honey,” her mother replies, acknowledging the love that both Cash and Carter feel for each other despite the fact that Cash was at a lowpoint in his life. Maybelle Carter was a devoutly religious woman who did not cast stones at the imperfect people in her life. Now that’s a real Christian in my book!
10. Ring of Fire. I heard a fascinating NPR report a few months ago about this song written by June Carter Cash (I can’t find the link but you should look for it). They played Johnny Cash’s famous version, then June’s haunting take of her own song after many years of marriage, then her sister Anita’s rendition, then the one recorded by the entire Carter Family, and finally covers of the song from entertainers as diverse as Deborah Harry, Frank Zappa, and Olivia Newton-John. Talk about a song with legs. Carter wrote this song from the gut. It’s a none-too-subtle look at her tortured involvement with Johnny Cash and the pain she felt about having a relationship with someone who was married and as troubled as Cash was in the beginning of their tumultuous time together. While such a song could be parodied as country music hyperbole, Phoenix and Witherspoon are so good in their roles that they really earned the right to sing these lyrics at the end of the film. As we listen to June’s song we get a glimpse into all of the pain and joy that these two people experienced.
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire.
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire.
The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild.
Run, don’t walk, to “Walk the Line!”