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With acknowledgement to publisher Sydney Morning Herald


Beyond redemption
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.


The musical biopic is great for those who found salvation - but what about the unsaved, asks John Patterson.


HeartBeat Entertainment | Walk The Line | Fox Movie Poster

Photo: AP


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 five-dollar bill.
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 transcendence.