California, 1968. Not a flowerchild in sight.
The camera edges up to the grim granite walls of Folsom Prison. The exercise yards are empty. A crow fossicks in a trash can. Jumpy armed guards patrol the towers. Where is everyone? Faint music brushes the ear; the camera follows it, and comes upon the entire prison population, in blue shirts, crammed noisily into one room, listening to Cash’s tense-looking band stringing out the intro and waiting for the singer to come on stage. But Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is out the back in the woodwork room, his face down-turned and running with sweat, his fingers resting against the savage-looking blade of a circular saw.
The sight of the saw flips us into the movie’s long flashback. John R. Cash is a fishing-mad 12-year-old on a poor farm in Arkansas, with a mean-mouthed, raging father, a mother who sings hymns, and a sweet-natured, righteous elder brother. The two boys listen at night to faraway country songs on the radio. “Jack,” says dreamy John to his big brother in bed, “how come you’re so good? You know every verse in scripture.” Of course there’s a horrible accident. Jack dies. The father unjustly blames it on John, and howls at him, “Devil took the wrong son!”
Everything’s poisoned. In 1952 John enlists and serves in Germany. Lonely, sick with guilt, he buys a guitar and hides with it in private corners, trying out chords and hauling out of thin air timid rhymes about a prison. Watching his absorbed, desolate labour, I found myself covered in goose bumps. Joaquin Phoenix brings the character right up to us, painfully close, inhabiting it fully, constantly risking and avoiding sentimentality. If we didn’t know Cash was going to make it, these early scenes would be almost unbearable.
By 1954 he is in Tennessee with a wife and baby daughter, humiliating himself as a door-to-door salesman. He finds two guys who want to play bass and guitar. His wife needs a family man. She’s embarrassed by their amateurish struggles: “Your band is two mechanics who can’t hardly play!” Long before June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) appears, we know this marriage isn’t going to last the distance.
Because this is Memphis, and Cash has caught the bug. Music is everywhere. Scrawny men with guitars lope along back streets and disappear into shabby buildings. Behind slammed doors they’re picking and rocking. If you can scrape up four dollars you can make a record.
One day Cash and his two mechanics present themselves to the sceptical young producer, Sam Phillips, at Sun Studios. Nervously they strike up a generic gospel tune, but a few bars in, Phillips cuts them off: “I don’t believe ya.” Stung, Cash begins to defend his faith, but Phillips, bored and impatient on a stool, throws down the gauntlet: “Say you came across a man who was dying. If you could play him one song – just one, out of all the songs in the world – would you sing him that, or would you sing something real, that you felt?”
It’s the sharp slap that every artist needs, to snap him out of his self-protective fear. It’s thrilling to watch Phoenix cop it. His whole face goes swimmy with shock. His eyes go blank, then sharpen into a new focus. “I got some other songs,” he mumbles, “that I wrote in the army.” And he dives in.
Phoenix is the seething soul of this gorgeous, juicy biopic by director James Mangold. The eye feasts on him: his hair is shiny black with a quiff, and he has slow, dark, heavy eyes that take forever to swivel in his beautiful head. Once he falls for Witherspoon’s tough, funny little June Carter, daughter of country music aristocrats who’s been performing since she was a child, he’s a shambling great hunk of suffering love.
But she won’t sleep with him, even when they’re touring together and famous all over the country. He’s married. They each have children. Damnation is real to these people. A perfect stranger feels free to reproach Carter in public for her divorce. “Everyone in this car,” declares Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) on a dark road between gigs, “is goin’ to hell.”
June Carter’s strength of character powers the story, holds it in shape. Witherspoon, who has a clean little face with a brow that arcs into earnest wrinkles, plays her with a bouncy sweetness. Her determination drives him half mad, but it’s also the making of him. She stands firm while he crashes through the worst of himself – amphetamines, booze, the wreckage of his career and his marriage – and she’s there when, in 1968, he staggers out the other side, thin-faced, chastened, purified. You could say – and Cash himself would – that her strength and self-command turned him into a man. Everyone likes a story of true love but this one is a cracker. And the glory of it is the music – so raw and vital, you can hardly stay in your seat.
Which is where, in the Cash and Carter spirit, I need to confess something. The night before I saw Walk the Line, my trumpet-playing brother-in-law happened to ask me if I’d heard the last record Johnny Cash made, in 2002, the year before he (and Carter) died. I shrugged. I’d never understood why people liked Johnny Cash – that bass line walking bim, bom, bim, bom behind the heavy voice intoning solemnly about crime and prison, ruination and redemption. Bob Dylan may have loved the song “I Walk the Line” when it came out in the ’50s, but it gave me the creeps. “No, really,” said my brother-in-law. “Listen to this. You’ll like it. He sings covers. He sings “We’ll Meet Again”. He sings “Danny Boy”.”
We were all in a good mood, drinking gin at somebody’s beach house, so I kept my disobliging thoughts to myself. He put the CD on low. People went on talking and laughing and eating, but something was happening in the room. An old man’s voice, deep and quiet, a bit trembly, full of warmth. You better let somebody love you / Before it’s too late. I’d never heard singing so modest and so serious. Everyone else ate chicken, but my dinner that night was a plateful of crow.
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