November 25, 2005

"Walk the Line"

I somehow missed the Little Richard biopic on NBC in 2000, but it sure seems like I've seen every other 1950s music icon's life story: Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis, Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and now Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. I've liked them all, though they do blend together in my head.

As do Johnny Cash's songs. The movie gives the impression that he perfected The Johnny Cash Song early with "Folsom Prison Blues," with lines ending with descending notes to give an air of manliness:

But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die

It's a great gimmick, but there are a few too many similar medium-fast songs in this 136 minute film. Still, there are plenty of memorable enough songs.

It's always interesting to see which song is stuck in your head after you see a musical (or, in the case of "Rent," it's revealing that no song stuck in my head). For me, the ultimate Johnny Cash song turns out to be the one written not by Johnny, but by his wife June Carter, "Ring of Fire."

A shortcoming of "Walk the Line" is that Cash worked hard to create this mythic image for himself, the Man in Black, the preacher / convict, but the movie is a straight-forward recounting of biographical events to the point of being a little mundane. Cash had a bigger impact on the American imagination as a whole than he did on director/screenwriter James Mangold's imagination, which remains earthbound. Mangold definitely made a film suited to the domestic-oriented title song "Walk the Line" rather than the alarming grandeur of "Ring of Fire."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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