By John Patterson
January 3, 2006 - 3:28PM
Country singer Johnny Cash, who died in 2001, is the subject of a new
biopic Walk the Line.
musical biopic is great for those who found salvation - but what about the
unsaved, asks John Patterson.
WE can remember Johnny Cash in so many ways. As the Tennessee two-steppin'
Sun Studios artist of the Elvis era; as the lion of CBS Records after
1960; or the man who became a kind of secular saint, a Christian whose
religious devotion didn't make you gag; or the guest star on Columbo or
the elder statesman of the Rick Rubin years or simply as the voice of the
coyote in Homer Simpson's chilli-pepper-induced hallucination. Cash, in
the end, really did contain Walt Whitman's multitudes: he was the man, he
suffered, he was there. And then he was gone. His face truly belongs on
the Mount Rushmore of American cultural folk-memory, or maybe on the
Which brings us to Walk the Line, James Mangold's obvious but still rather
wonderful biopic of Cash, which focuses on the period from 1944, when Cash
was a 10-year-old facing a miserable lifetime on the cotton patch, to his
career-saving show at Folsom Prison in 1968, before an audience of
hardened cons to whom he seemed like a brother and a god. Joaquin Phoenix
may not look or sound exactly like Cash - then again, who could? - but we
come to accept without rancour or complaint the sincerity of Phoenix's
commitment to the part.
What worries me slightly, however, is the way in which the musical biopic
is now hardening into a formula. Mangold can't have known it as he
laboured to film Cash's life, but he was making a movie exactly like
Taylor Hackford's Ray: both Charles and Cash had careers that took off in
the 1950s, both had issues with God, narcotics and women, and each was
redeemed late in the 1960s. Each movie has scenes in which songs we know
by heart are painstakingly constructed from the ground up, and each pivots
around the accidental death in childhood of a beloved brother and the
subsequent debilitating guilt.
It's a template that was laid down in 1980 in Michael Apted's Coal Miner's
Daughter. A musician struggles out of the direst poverty, suffers the
torments of the damned, transforms his or her field of endeavour and is
redeemed by the power of love. The narrative trajectory always moves
inexorably upward toward salvation and self-knowledge, like a parable or
an AA confession.
I wonder whether this is the reason it has been so hard for filmmakers to
get movies made about figures no less important, but whose lives don't
conform to this pattern. You'd hardly know it today, but the work of Hank
Williams (the first Cadillac Cowboy and country music's proto-Elvis) or
Sam Cooke (the foremost gospel singer of the 1950s, who became the first
soul superstar) is no less important, and is arguably more important, than
that of Cash or Charles. But their lives don't provide any reassurance or