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Cold, Hard Cash

So I saw two movies over the past two days, both “bio-pics” and both quite good in their own way. It seems that Ray is what biographical films get compared to of late, probably due to Foxx’s Oscar win. I haven’t seen Ray, so I can’t make that comparison. What I can say of both Capote and Walk The Line is that it’s been a long time since I saw acting so compelling, so convincing in a film. Capote was incredibly good — Philip Seymour Hoffman does an amazing job with Capote’s voice, ticks and mannerisms, and as such I found him completely believable. I’ve loved Hoffman since his performance opposite De Niro in Flawless , and he did not disappoint.

But Walk The Line was an even more incredible movie experience. Maybe because of the memories associated with Johnny Cash that I brought to the movie. I grew up listening to The Man in Black on 8-Track, lying in front of my dad’s stereo wearing his oversized headphones, blissfully switching between “programs” (for those who never had the joy of a 8-Track, there are 8 audio tracks written to the medium — two tracks (for stereo sound) for 4 “programs”). Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t look much like Cash. There are a few scenes with young Cash and young Elvis touring together (“you want some chili fries?”), and I actually thought Phoenix looked more like I picture Elvis in my mind than the actor playing Elvis, but that’s neither here nor there. Despite the lack of physical similarity, Phoenix was Cash in my mind by the end of the film.

I knew going into the film that both Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter[-Cash], had performed their own vocals for the film. From the first time she opened her mouth and sang, Witherspoon convinced me she was a member of the first family of country music. My family used to vacation in Gatlinburg, TN, and Witherspoon’s Carter was exactly how I remember those performers. I was initially disappointed by Phoenix’s vocals — “nice, I thought, but no Johnny.” But as the film progressed I found them more and more convincing. I’m not sure if it was an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers — I guess it’s reasonable to assume that Cash’s voice and sound matured as his career progressed — or if it was simply due to being drawn in, but by the end of the film, I was convinced that Cash himself was singing.

So I love Johnny Cash, so either this film had a high bar or I was pre-disposed to like it (or perhaps both), but it was satisfying in every sense. It focuses on Johnny’s early career paying particular attention to the years immediately following his signing to Sun Records, through his prescription drug addiction, to his marriage to June Carter. As I said earlier, Witherspoon’s performance as June Carter completely changed my mind about her acting capabilities. It was refreshing to have the view that Witherspoon==Legally Blond challenged; I guess I never considered that she was acting for that film as well. Duh, Nathan.

I had the good fortune of catching the re-air of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash interviews on Fresh Air yesterday afternoon after seeing the film. I don’t much care for country music these days, but hearing his voice on the radio reminded me just how sad it was when he died in 2003. Hopefully Walk The Line will expose his life and especially his music to a whole new audience who hasn’t heard it before.