Well, I went to see the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line Friday night, taking Katie along for the ride. (And sending her out to the bathroom as soon as I discerned the trailer for Brokeback Mountain revving up. More on that later.)
It was enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing. The reviews that to me, capture the problems with the film are those by Frederica Mathewes-Green and Owen Gleiberman in EW. What Frederica says is so true: while there is tons of music in this film...
Ray had its own strengths and flaws, but one thing it did well was thoroughly explore the nature of Ray Charles's musical genius. The neophyte viewer was led along from one stage of Charles's work to another, seeing how influences result in fresh sounds, and how combining two genres could result in something entirely original, and why that new thing might inspire both enthusiasm and resistance.
But you wouldn't know from Walk the Line what was distinctive about Cash's sound, or whether it changed and evolved, or whether it influenced others. The most we can glean comes from the 20th Century Fox promotional materials: "He was a voice of rebellion that changed the face of rock and roll. An outlaw before today's rebels were born." These unsupported assertions could have been helpfully borne out on screen.
The transition of Cash as hopeful struggling musician to touring singer with hordes of screaming girls after him is made with obviously too much edited out - it's sudden and inexplicable, and, as Frederica says, includes no real exploration of the music. Leiberman faults the film:
As a portrait of Johnny Cash the gravel-voiced country-rock innovator, who projected a private hellfire onto even his jauntiest anthems, Walk the Line is zesty and satisfying. But when it turns to the tale of how Cash, trapped in a miserable marriage, spent year after year courting, seducing, loving, yet never quite winning June Carter, the movie is on shakier ground. On the road, Cash enjoys groupies and pops amphetamines, an addiction that will land him in trouble with the law. Yet he's really a gentle soul who yearns to be loved. He and Carter begin to make eyes at each other the moment they meet backstage, and when Carter's first marriage ends, there appears to be little in the way of their getting together. But Carter, the scion of a famously traditional Christian singing family, feels guilty about her divorce, and Cash, after coercing her into performing a duet she wrote with her ex-husband, makes the mistake of giving her an onstage peck on the cheek. Horrors!
It's a downhill spiral from there. Walk the Line could turn out to be a monster chick flick, because its design is almost mythic: Saintly girl has to wait for country-rock bad boy to purge his demons and settle down. But while Witherspoon, a fine singer herself, makes Carter immensely likable, a fountain of warmth and cheer, given how sweetly she meshes with Phoe-nix her romantic reticence isn't really filled in.
That first part of the film is quite good - the opening at Folsom Prison is heart-stopping, the early life is spare and sad, and Cash's slow growth into a songwriter and performer is pretty convincing, even as it follows the convention of the music biopic, and the scenes of the Sun Records tour are just too, too brief and leave you wishing for more - the guy who plays Jerry Lee Lewis is especially great, but then...it's Jerry Lee Lewis he's playing.
I'm not a filmmaker or critic, so it's hard for me to say what could have made that middle section stronger. I just know it was ultimately dissatisfying and left us with a rather shallow portrait of Cash.
Terry Mattingly likes to talk about religion ghosts in journalism. There's a ghost of a strong theme in Walk the Line - it's articulate early on by John's older brother, who has his eyes set on being a preacher, and, as John observes, knows his Bible impressively well. The brother shrugs and says something like, "People are going to come to me for help. If I'm gonna help them I have to know the right story to tell." It pops up again when Sam Phillips says, in a really great scene - one of my favorites in the film, that Johnny needs to imagine that he was lying in a ditch, dying...what one song would he sing to express what his life was all about? "That's the kind of song that saves people," he says. Jerry Lee Lewis alludes to it when he muses that "We're going to hell for the songs we sing.." And it's picked up again at the end, when Johnny, having gone through his drug withdrawal and told by June that God has given him a second chance, looks over his fan mail and notes how many of them are coming from the incarcerated, and, despite the objections of Columbia, the Folsom Prison concert is born. Stories to help...songs to save..that was the theme I was interested in, and that's why I wish that the film had ended with that second Folsom Prison scene, and not continued on to wrap up with Johnny's proposal to June onstage in London, Ontario. Yes, she and her family were crucial in his rehab, but I somehow think the film had been stronger if it had gone a little lighter on the June element and concentrated more on Cash's own inner life and motivation for writing, singing and living.
But...it was entertaining. I'd see it again. 'Cause I love me that Jerry Lee Lewis.
Oh...and on the Brokeback Mountain thing. Andrew Sullivan is thinking this will be a breakout, breakthrough movie. You know, B-list handsome male stars in a cowboys-in-love film. Well, after the trailer ended, in the seconds before the beginning of the next one, there was, in this full theater, a very discernible, audience-wide snicker. A guy behind me said, "I don't THINK so," evidently not moved by the sight of Heath Ledger or whoever clutching the shirt of the other guy to his shirt and weeping.
Somehow, I think King Kong might be a bigger hit.
(Just a couple more Walk the Line notes...to just prove that the power of art is in specificity and detail...beside those Sun Records tour scenes, the best scenes were a couple in which characters spoke very naturally about things important to them - the young actor portraying Johnny's older brother speaking about his interest in the Bible, then a scene where Cash and June talk the for the first time in an almost empty restaurant, about music, about his brother, "Oh..he passed" says Cash in response to June's remark that she'd sing a song for him when she sang at the Ryman. And then, in a Thanksgiving scene, there's just the briefest of exchanges between Johnny's mother (played by Shelby Lynne) and Maybelle Carter about learning to sing from shape notes, and how no one knows how to do that any more...nice stuff.)