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The making of the Man in Black

About the author
Charlie Devereux is a freelance journalist and photographer. He was a member of the openDemocracy editorial team from August to December 2005

The repetition of a line of dialogue in the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line, gives the key to this film’s portrayal of a man who represented many things to many people. The line is first heard when Cash is readying himself for his fateful audition at Sam Philips’s recording studio. His first wife, Vivian, is fussing around him and questions his choice of costume. “Why are you wearing black? You look like you are going to a funeral.” “Maybe I am,” he replies, uncertainly. Later in the film – and in his life – he is asked the same question by a music company executive who is worried about the commercial viability of his sombre image and his decision to relaunch his career at a prison concert. His reply is the same, except this time it is said with more conviction. The repetition marks the culmination of Cash’s journey of self-discovery. His conviction and compassion were to become his trademarks, but James Mangold’s film shows us the man before he has reached that destination; the Man in Black has yet to arrive.

johnny cash, joaquin phoenixleft: the real "man in black" - Johnny Cash
right: Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash

The film opens with the infamous concert at Folsom Prison. The camera pans in on a collection of drab grey buildings and snakes its way through prison gates and past empty cells, accompanied by a droning crescendo of drums and bass as it approaches the room in which a crowd of prisoners are clamouring for the artist’s entrance. This was the moment by which he would be identified in years to come. His empathy with prisoners would become a recurring theme in songs such as Folsom Prison Blues and Give My Love To Rose. From here we flash back to his early life: his upbringing on a cotton farm in Kingsland, Arkansas, during the Great Depression; the accidental death of his older brother, which had a profound effect on him; his time in the Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s when he first began to write songs; and his early musical career in Memphis, touring with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. We see a different, younger Cash, one not so secure in his convictions or so wise in his choices. He’s a womaniser, a drinker, and a drug addict who neglects his family while on the road.

His early life and career demonstrate an impetuosity that is not evident in his twilight years: on his return from Germany he marries Vivian, a girl he had met only weeks before his departure to join the army; and one of his defining traits, his all-black outfit, is no more than a whim – a lack of any alternative colour dictates how he will be seen for the rest of his life. But his impetuosity provides him with the courage to approach record producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Further incidents in the film point to a rudderless early life. Asked how he came upon his ‘sound’, the distinctive freight-train bass-line, he explains that his backing band are not technically proficient enough to play any faster. And when he first proposes to June Carter, his stage and eventually life partner, she turns him down not only because he has not fully conquered his amphetamine addiction but also because he is on bended knee in the back of a tour bus.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash, and while he bears an airbrushed resemblance to the man, his performance is closer in imitation of Cash’s brooding intensity than in appearance. His impersonation of the singing voice, so central to Cash’s identity, is impressive. It is wonderful to see the metamorphosis that takes place as he auditions at Sun Studios, his voice changing in the course of a song from a shy young farmboy’s tenor to the rich bass full of the emotion with which his music is now so closely identified.

Reese Witherspoon and joaquin phoenixReese Witherspoon as June Carter-Cash with Joaquin Phoenix

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter is equally accomplished, her performance full of sass and humour, and underpinned with an emotional maturity that complements Cash’s early insecurities. Walk The Line is structured around the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter and around the rise and fall and eventual resurrection of Cash as a musician and as a man. A plotline that recalls so many rock’n’roll stereotypes is forgivable for the fact that Cash, alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, invented it: before them there was no such thing as a rock star. For Cash, his fall from grace, descent into drug addiction and eventual redemption, nurtured by his relationship with June Carter, has biblical resonances that embellish the myth. What the film shows is how he grew into that myth.

Walk The Line is most effective in its realistic portrayal of the burgeoning rock’n’roll scene of the 1950s. The concerts have an energy that is communicated through Phedon Papamichael’s dynamic camerawork, using hand-held and Steadicam, and by a supporting cast of professional musicians, most notably Waylon Malloy Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis and Shooter Jennings playing his own father, Waylon Jennings (although Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley is disappointingly unconvincing). The glossy sheen of the film’s palate of colours conveys a sense of the excitement of a world that is fast turning technicolour. Phoenix plays Cash’s performances with a simplicity but also an intensity that allows us to understand how he became an icon for the era of the teenager.

Cash’s human qualities are a great source of attraction to his music – his prison concerts in San Quentin and Folsom, and his empathy with “the poor and the beaten down”, as he sings in his statement of intent, The Man in Black. Bob Dylan described his voice as “from the middle of the earth … deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once”. A new generation came to know Johnny Cash and his music through his American Recordings records at the turn of the century. When his career seemed all but over, Rick Rubin, the phenomenally successful producer for hip hop acts such as Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys, saw the potential in repackaging him for a new audience, an audience drawn to his music by its simplicity – one man and a guitar – and by his integrity. Cash’s life seemed to enrich his art more the older he became, so that by the end of his life he was producing some astonishingly personal and powerful music. By his final album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, practically recorded on his deathbed, he was drawing on a remote wisdom accumulated over the years.

joaquin phoenix

So it is conspicuous that Mangold chooses to sidestep the role of religion in Cash’s development and his concern for social issues that this produced, which is an essential aspect of the artist’s persona. Johnny Cash came from the farming communities of the mid-west. He was a friend of the evangelist Billy Graham and his music is full of references to his faith – making him the perfect icon for puritan middle America. In his maturity, Cash was able to cover artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and Neil Diamond and make their songs his own. Country music reached an audience that had previously viewed it as narrow-minded and intolerant. For some, religious or non-religious, for whom America seems to have lost its way in the new millennium, his music represents the line that it has veered from. We get glimpses of his religion when he is taken to church by June following his rehabilitation and of his social humanitarianism in his prison concert. But the rest of the time we see more of the sinner than the saint, through the depiction of his picaresque early years.

The film adds an interesting footnote to his legacy and contributes to understanding someone who was tormented by a constant battle to deny his urge to play the rock’n’roll rebel that so conflicted with his faith and his love for June Carter. We see his resurrection as a musician and a man. He grows into his role as champion of the poor and the oppressed. He becomes a man at ease with himself, acknowledging his faults, his darker side and addictive personality: he’s no saint but he’s honest with himself. But don’t watch Walk The Line expecting to see a complete portrait of Johnny Cash. Biopic is an inaccurate classification for this film. It’s a compelling and at times thrilling picture of a period in a man’s life, and by focusing on his rebel years, it demonstrates how he became that rounded individual, and how this informed his music.

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