What the ‘Man in Black’ means today

spiked-film: The Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line shows that Cash is popular because he is not a man for our times.

Graham Barnfield

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Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold, on general release from 3 February 2006.

Promises of Oscars swirl around James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line like tumbleweed from the dustbowl and Depression era into which Cash was born. Critics note the note-perfect impersonations of the Man in Black by Joaquin Phoenix and his soulmate June Carter Cash by Reese Witherspoon. Like the vengeful spectre he could appear as in life, his cinematic alter ego towers above the wreckage of dozens of awful rock’n’roll biopics. Phoenix’s well-publicised stay in ‘music boot camp’ has clearly paid off.

In Cash’s final years (he died in 2003) there was a renewed interest in the man and his music. Through the production work of Rick Rubin in particular, old rockers found a new respect for Cash and new listeners found him for the first time. Such was Cash’s voice, it could make even the opening credits of an average Dawn of the Dead remake (2003) into something rather chilling.

More broadly, he came to embody a tradition of robust independence and inner demons for other people to experience vicariously (see Hard Cash and soft men, by Andrew Calcutt). Living a life and exuding a toughness that seemed out of step with our touchy-feely times, Cash was an iconic reminder of something that had been lost in recent years. While Phoenix’s memorable performance shows him struggling to write ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ as a sideline to his life in the army, it’s hard to imagine many of his present-day admirers even getting into the army. In short, the biopic seems long overdue.

The reason for this is not that Cash is a man for our times: quite the opposite. He’s become a nostalgic reference point for the thirty- and fortysomethings who wish they were more like their dads. In the absence of a comparable ‘greatest generation’ with a clearly defined mission and masculinity, an ersatz replacement must be found. Musical considerations aside, men who had grown out of the pantomime manliness of Maxim and Loaded put the Man in Black on a pedestal. The Nick Hornby generation is too busy making lists to steal a car ‘one piece at a time’ as in the song (1), let alone hack it in the service or in Folsom Prison. By the time we were mourning his death from diabetes complications and Shy-Drager syndrome, we’d spent time using Cash to mourn our own lost bearings.

Walk the Line is fortunate to have a twenty-first century niche in which to ply its trade. It feeds off a Hollywood perception that biopics can always come up smelling of roses. Commercially they are treated as ‘pre-sold’, on account of turning some trailblazing historical figure into a screen persona; critically, there’s a recognition that film awards panels treat the creative reconstruction of historical narrative as much more than just a bunch of impersonators at work. It’s not just the Kate Winslet character in Extras who sees ‘playing a mental’ as the path to an Oscar-lined mantelpiece. The trend for biopics produced some decent movies in 2004 (Ray, Kinsey) and some uncomfortable dross (Beyond the Sea, De-Lovely). Either way, Walk the Line shows no signs of the biog-bubble bursting (whether it will further fuel the trend towards letting the genre replace the history books is another story).

Mangold’s careful direction, his thorough co-written screenplay – developed in consultation with Cash himself – and the much-lauded efforts of his cast: all these combine to create a visual and aural treat, backed by spot-on musical performances. An entourage of modern music industry folk cameo as young musicians associated with Sam Philips’ Sun studio, including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. If nothing else, this reminds modern audiences of the institution Cash was set to become in future. Walk the Line is primarily concerned with showing how this could happen, yet it avoids the anachronism of imposing present-day emotional correctness on to events 50 years ago.

Thus in the background we see Robert Terminator 2 Patrick and Ginnifer Goodwin put in low-key yet startling supporting turns as Cash’s father, Ray, and first wife, Vivian, respectively. Ray Cash glowers throughout, clearly wishing to transfer the fatal childhood accident that took his eldest son over to the younger brother. A prudish Vivian has to come to terms with Johnny’s cheating. Like their cast-mates, both inject a level of interpretation and fluidity into their roles that stops proceedings from degenerating into some wax tableau of recent history. Such subtlety is quite a feat.

Critics have praised the movie for its treatment of (read preoccupation with) Cash and his inner demons, not least a lengthy and damaging spell of amphetamine addiction. The pairing of Phoenix and Witherspoon avoids the easy histrionics used to illustrate an individual’s ‘dark side’ in action, playing it subtly until the point where the drugs and booze are obstructing the frantic routine of touring and recording. Longer term, this combination makes Cash’s eventual redemption possible, reducing his self-destructive behaviour and freeing him up for the legendary 1968 concert at Folsom Prison. Contemporary therapy has no place in a world where hard graft and the love of a good woman is sufficient to set things straight; Witherspoon’s determined June Carter is no pushover either.

As biopics go, Walk the Line thrives on account of its inspiring central performances. It eschews present-day preaching and shows fidelity to the facts, not by immersion in period detail – although this holds up – but because of the storytelling which makes much of the Cash story accessible once again. The (deserved) revival of interest in Cash’s music, prompted by his struggle for some final perfect albums, can only be further boosted by this movie. For many fans, now the key question is whether the miles walked by Joaquin Phoenix in the Man in Black’s boots will leave the actor permanently bound up with his musical mentor’s image. Folk memories will tell, which is fitting, given all that Cash did to preserve them in song.

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox and teaches at the University of East London. He doesn’t know where he’s bound.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Brendan O’Neill on Jarhead.

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Lyrics at Cowboy Lyrics.

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