Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hotter than a pepper sprout

Walk The Line (Dir: James Mangold, 2005)

One of my favourite movies as a kid was The Glenn Miller Story, encouraged by a father who was a big band nut, and a mother for whom Jimmy Stewart was a secular saint. At the age of eight or so, I really believed (or wanted to) that the creative process went something like this:

Helen Miller (aka June Allyson): Say Glenn, that's a pretty tune.
Glenn Miller (Stewart): Oh shucks, Helen, it's just a little something I've been playing around with. I'm thinking of calling it 'Serenade at Moonlight'.
Helen: Why not just call it 'Moonlight Serenade'?
Glenn: Say, that's a swell idea!

The Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line is forever teetering on the brink of such charming dunderheadedness, but never quite falls over. The closest it comes is when June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) hurls her rage and a few bottles at the pill-popping Cash, berating him because "y'all don't walk no line". Immediately cut to Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) trying out the chords for this li'l ole song he's just done written, and it's called...

But what do you expect when the subject's real life was so melodramatic? Like last year's Ray, Walk The Line suggests that the hero's problems really kicked off with the accidental death of a sibling - in Cash's case, when his brother had his torso ripped open by a rotary saw. The hellraising and pillpopping were just a matter of time. On the way, we get the nervous audition, the fumbles with groupies, the collapse on stage, the love of a good woman returning him to the straight and narrow, etc etc. Apparently certain elements on the swivel-eyed evangelical right have been huffy that the script downplays the role of Christianity in Cash's return to the land of the living. But surely the slightly ludicrous scene where Cash backs his tractor into the river, and emerges from the water into June's loving arms, has enough baptismal oomph to please the holiest roller?

The film pretty much stops at Folsom Prison, so we miss the glorious (Rick Rubin) and unfortunate (Billy Graham) episodes in the great man's later career. However, for all its faults, Walk The Line communicates the smouldering intensity of Cash's stage presence, andf the steely commitment that hid behind Carter's candysweet image. And the performances are magnificent. Witherspoon will get her Oscar, or I'm a rhinestone; Phoenix is Oscar-worthy, but might suffer from some unusually strong competition in the male category.

Meanwhile, I just went out and bought five Johnny Cash CDs. So somebody must be doing something right...

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