Shiny Shelf


By Stephen Lavington on 26 May 2006

Music biopics are the ‘meh’ genre of films consisting, as they do, of a pretty regular formula of humble origins, emerging talent, the ups and downs of fame, a crisis of some sort and then either triumphant resolution or death (normally of the glamorous or decadent sort. The account of the early career of Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’ doesn’t deviate from this trend but notches up a striking success in the one true variable of this kind of film – the casting. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon deserved their Oscar nominations (though it was unsurprising when Phoenix got creamed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for ‘Capote’).

Indeed, the plot itself is so formulaic that it’s pretty much summarised above. Childhood tragedy, musical inspiration while on military service in Germany, discovery and early successes (including obligatory cameos by famous contemporaries such as Jerry Lee Lewis and, rather clunkily, Elvis Presley (“Want some chili fries?”), drug addiction, recuperation and redemption through marriage.

I make no bones about this spoiler, because the very nature of a biopic is that everyone knows the ending. What makes the journey so entertaining is the laissez-faire direction. ‘The Doors’ was a lousy film despite a spot-on central performance from Val Kilmer because Oliver Stone tried to make it about something (it didn’t help that this ’something’ was a barely comprehensible load of old drivel about shamanism and William Blake). James Mangold has been consent to let Phoenix drive the story with a riveting portrayal of Cash including an amazing impersonation of the man’s distinctive singing style (he performs the songs on the film’s tie-in soundtrack CD). Witherspoon is also compelling (and also sings) as June Carter, the love of Cash’s life.

As with any of these films, a lot depends on your feelings towards the subject (though to an extent ‘Walk the Line’ also works as a straightforward love story). Any gripes are similarly subjective; I’d have liked a bit more time spent on the friendship between Cash and Bob Dylan that gave rise to some of his best stuff. Nonetheless if you’re at all interested in Johnny Cash or biopics in general, or fancy a solid, enjoyable two hour movie then you could do a lot worse than check this out.

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By Stephen Lavington

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