Thursday, November 24, 2005

Walking a Fine Line

In what could be called the Caucasian equivalent of the movie "Ray" we now have the bi-op of the recently deceased Johnny Cash on film. The star role is played effectively and accurately by Joaquin Phoenix, and equally effectively co-stars Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. The movie runs over two hours, allowing the story to percolate along at its own pace, and like the movie "Ray" we leave the central figure at or near the apex of his career, in this case at the juncture where June finally relents and agrees to marry Johnny after being propositioned on stage in 1968. The landmark "Live at Folson Prison" album was already a major hit, and by this time Cash, with the help of Carter had licked his addiction to prescription drugs. The similarities to the story of Ray Charles are striking, and remarkable.

The movie begins much like "Ray" did with a brief recounting of Cash's upbringing in Dyess Arkansas, part of a sharecropping family with a stern father and a devout hymn-singing mother. It becomes clear early on in the movie how much damage parental favoritism can do to a child, for the father has no tolerance for his younger son's love for music, and clearly favors the more practical older brother Jack, as the star of the family. When there is a horrible accident at the sawmill in which the older son is killed, the father at least partially blames Johnny for being off fishing rather than being present with his brother at that tragic moment. It was a childhood episode that was to haunt Cash throughout his life.

One of the fasacinating aspects of this movie is the faithful recreation of the early days in Memphis at Sun Records in the mid and later 50s when Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins, and June Carter, and the youngest of them all Johnny Cash were all making hit recording and touring together on the Sun Records tours. It reminds us that long before there was Beatle mania there was already rock-a billy mania focused on various of these rising American stars. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon do a fine job of actually singing in this movie and not merely lip-syncing and this makes the movie all the more believable and compelling.

One of the aspects of the story which unfortunately does not get enough play is the Christian faith of both Johnny Cash and June Carter throughout the various vicissitudes of their lives. This is unfortunate as it was one of the main things that sustained them through many hard times. But of course since the story stops in 1968, we miss most of the real Christian period of Cash's and Carter's lives. The movie tries to walk a fine line between not hiding the Christian factor and not overplaying it either.

There can be little doubt, that in a year when excellent dramas are thin on the ground that this movie is bound to get some Oscar nods. It shows in great and painful detail how hard it is to live life on the road and be true to one's Christian commitments. And this is a lesson worth remembering whether one is a traveling business person, a musician, or a politician.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting analysis and summary. I'm a longtime fan of Cash and have recently blogged a bit on him.

I'm looking forward to seeing the film if it gets all the way to Korea.

Thanks for posting your thoughts.

Jeffery Hodges

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Derek said...

Blogged my own review here

Did you notice that he went from a gospel-singing young boy to a man unable to even say the blessing before a meal?

Ben Witherington said...

Yeah, guilt will do that to you... and did you notice that Jerry Lee Lewis knew what was really going down spiritually?