Thursday, September 17, 2009

Here comes Johnny

A mere nine months after buying the DVD, we finally got round to watching the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line the other night - and it wasn't quite the film I'd been hoping for.

For one, it adheres fairly rigidly to the conventional narrative arc of the biopic: traumatic childhood incident, struggles for recognition and suffering for the art, hard-won success and the downward spiral of substance abuse. Of course, that's not to say this arc is misleadingly superimposed on Cash's life history (I don't know enough about him to comment on that) - but I suspect that those elements in his life history that conform to the arc are probably teased out by the scriptwriter(s), and others relegated in importance, glossed over or ignored altogether.

The one way it differs from comparable films like Control and The Doors, of course, is that it's got a happy ending - and one which, with the pointed reconciliation with his father, has a saccharine Hollywoodness that sticks in the throat. As does the constant spoon-feeding that suggests the viewer isn't entrusted to make the connections or credited with any nous: Cash marvelling at the shoeshiners moving in tandem soon before performing 'Get Rhythm', and later excitedly mentioning Bob Dylan before going on to cover Dylan's 'It Ain't Me, Babe'.

The fact that the film focuses predominantly on his tempestuous relationship with June Carter also irritated me a little. A film about a life as long and eventful as Cash's certainly does need focus of some kind, and it's often Hollywood's way to zero in on the love interest because it probably has the broadest appeal (hence the film ending when it does, with the couple newly married but with Cash still 35 years away from death) - but personally I felt that that focus is to the detriment of other things, most noteably the music.

Only on rare occasions do we really see what music means to him, or come to appreciate the power of his songs - the audition for Sun's Sam Phillips being such an instance. What is very much conspicuous by its absence is any consideration of what it meant to be a white man in the South playing a form of music that was firmly entrenched in black culture and history, while the extent to which Cash's songs presented a challenge to the establishment is never really explored beyond the scenes in Folsom Prison.

Don't get me wrong, though - it's my natural inclination to want to pick holes in things I've heard others raving about (you may have noticed that by now - wish I could help it, but I can't), and despite all of this carping, it's certainly a watchable film, with Reece Witherspoon and particularly Joaquin Phoenix turning in great performances.

1 comment:

Del said...

I believe Jon Stewart described it at the Oscars as "Ray with white people".