Walk the Line, the award-winning biopic of tortured country star Johnny Cash, joins a growing recent list of biographies and documentaries to be made specifically for the silver screen.
This may well reflect popular culture’s current blurring of the line between fiction and fact in entertainment, along with our voyeuristic interest in the true stories of others over invented versions of the same thing. Small matter that, though, if it grips you and gives you pleasure for an hour or two. Unfortunately, for me, Walk the Line doesn’t quite reach these heights.
This is not to say it is not accomplished and heartfelt. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Man in Black is eerily accurate, both vocally and physically, to the point where you begin to wonder where acting ends and impersonation begins – if, indeed, they are not actually synonymous. The music has been lovingly reconstructed in conditions similar to its original creation. All that and the blessing of Cash himself means there is little that feels unauthentic about it.
Except, of course, it isn’t authentic. As with any good story, there is much that has to be changed of the truth to protect the plot. This is both the strength and the weakness of the film. It may be long – over two and a half hours – but the tightness of the scripting means there is barely an ounce of flab on its body. Everything from future wife June Carter getting snagged on Johnny’s guitar string to the on-stage marriage proposal may not have been quite as well rehearsed in reality, but they show the devices and the shortcuts needed to make the film very watchable.
At the same time, there’s a haunting feeling that we are being spun a yarn. And, of course, that’s true too. After all “when the myth’s more entertaining than the truth – give them the myth”. And there are few more mythical than Cash, whose own personal descent into Hell before finding redemption through the love of a good woman, is the very stuff of novels.
If anything, the film actually demythologises Cash somewhat, which is disappointing. It certainly does not celebrate the life Cash chose for himself. Indeed, it implies that Cash had little choice – that his descent was down to the grief and lack of love he experienced as a child, a theme very familiar and resonant in the 21st century world of victims that cannot escape their childhoods. Whether he truly said it or not, we are made to feel that Cash’s father’s words to the 12 year-old Johnny after his brother was killed – “he took the wrong son” – haunted him and drove him like a freight train to drugs and despair throughout his adult life.
Yet there must have been some good times. Bono has an anecdote about having dinner with Cash where, after saying grace, he looked up and said “Sure do miss the drugs, though”. While darkness makes for a better story, there is an unnerving moralism at the heart of this picture. Cash, who gave his blessing to the script, probably wanted it that way. A deeply moral Christian, he would have preferred the parable to the whole truth. But Cash was never anything less than a deeply complex character as this movie reveals – it only seems a shame that the movie makers should decide to make the side of the line they appear to want us to walk so abundantly clear.