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Walk the Line (USA 2005)
Directed by James Mangold
Fox 2000 Pictures/Tree Line Films/Konrad Pictures

Writing credits: Gill Dennis & James Mangold
(based on "The Man in Black" by Johnny Cash, and "Cash: An Autobiography" by Cash/Patrick Carr)
With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
136 min, USA

When I grew up and started fishing in my father's record collection, there was this one guy's face on more covers than others. On one he was in a special sort of blue light with the guitar on his back, looking humble but not lost. On another he was standing on a hill above a railroad track, with a gun in his hand and a cowboy hat on his head. On yet another he was pointing at a ragged old flag, making a sort of statement I couldn't quite understand. Of course I listened to these records, along with all the rest, although I was growing a peculiar love for Herman's Hermits' "No Milk Today". I didn't grasp everything I heard, but there was always something intriguing about this man that told stories from trains, from prison and about never fitting in. This much I understood. Then again, he never quite fit into my idea of "cool music to listen to" in the 80's, and as pop got the best of me for some 5-6 years I almost forgot about the (as I remembered him) cowboy with the steady barritone.

As Born To Run had occupied my turntable for nearly a year, I figured it was time to go deeper into that pile of records and find my way back to the cowboy. Then, something happened that might explain my ever sceptisism toward the punk movement. This serious looking man that sang about outlaws, hobos and bad drinkers took a tight grip of my spine around about the same time that I heard him say "Hello, my name is Johnny Cash".

That was the moment I knew that this new Johnny, Rotten that is, had said his all to me and that relationship ended quite abruptly - with no sentiment at all. And, by the way, it was a lot more "punk" to go talking about Johnny Cash in 1985 than calling for songs from Flogging A Dead Horse. Hearing about him hating every inch of San Quentin made a lot clearer picture in my head than The Pistols hating every damn thing in the world. Figuring out pretty quick that the records Cash released in the 80's weren't by far his best hour, it didn't really matter as the goldmine was there for me to start dig in.

Then, mid-80's, he got together (as with his life in all) with the toughest bunch on the prairie, The Highwaymen, started working with the most unlikely producer in his phone-book, Rick Rubin in '94, recorded songs from across the last decade, just as unlikely - started selling records once more - and became everybody's favourite gunslinger again. So, all it takes to wrap up the legend is a big Cash movie (pun intended). Now it's here, with two of Hollywood's sweetest leading the way. You bet I was full of fear for what they might have done - but none the less - on my way into the movie theatre. Joaquin Phoenix? Well, I can't say I have really much against him, other than him never doing anything very memorable. Reese Witherspoon? You know, she's down there with Jennifer Lopez on my list.

What the film does right, first of all, is holding back on a lot of things. For instance, concentrating on a pretty narrow time-span, sticking to the first and formative years of Johnny's career. You pretty soon understand what the director/writer James Mangold is aiming for with this tale, and the love-story is on top of his list of priorities.Then again, it falls a bit short in telling the story about Johnny Cash, the great artist, and not just the romantic tale of these two lovers circling each other's nests. But it does give us a total understanding of what kind of speed he was on in his downslide, hadn't it been for June. Those of you who has seen the video for "Hurt" probably already get the idea. Here's a man on the verge of being obsessed with a woman way before he even met her, just by hearing her singing on the radio and seeing pictures in the papers. Not quite starstruck - she was a star at 11 - but none the less struck. So, the connection is there, and it's absolutely no way to get around it. All I need to give away (if that) about the story is that they, of course, get it together and stay together. Johnny passes only three months after June. Needless to say more.

So, I did miss some, at least, stints of information about how Cash 'came Cash - the man who sang for everyone from teenage girls to inmates and family-men, such as my father. The compassionate man who didn't look down upon anyone's place in life. But it might just be that it's in there, only not so obvious, as he goes along. The learning-by-falling way of walking. Apart from the estranged relationship to his dad and the loss of his brother, there are not many stories here that shines a light on how this every-man became a one-of-a-kind legend.

These are elements I got to think about way after the film was over, 'cause when I was there I was there with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, but saw them fully as June Carter and Johnny Cash. Both reportedly picked personally by Johnny and June to portray them in this film. Knowing that they sing the songs themselves I'm thinking it might be just as well, instead of lip-synching their way through the music, make-believing what we see and hear is the same (which we would've known wasn't true). And, they're not bad singers or performers. I was not embarassed, I did not sink into my chair wishing I was someplace else. On the contrary, it works very well. Even the way Phoenix holds the guitar (they got that trick with the dollar-bill tied to the fretboard right), lifts his chin and sneers makes him a worthy and dignified Cash - for all the dignity Cash himself could keep those years. Witherspoon is more than loveable. She's less of that whining blonde but with a lot more to go for than ever before.

I was touched, I was entertained but I was most of all taught. Here's a lesson of history, of love and music. Hadn't it been for this outlaw, I bet there wouldn't have been any punk movement as we know it. Makes me think of Cash and Joe Strummer doing Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" together, and how it all makes sense that these two (no, Strummer's not on my list of "punks") rebels sing a song of freedom, peace and struggle shortly before they both pass away. Well, Johnny Cash wasn't always a man of peace but he was a rebel for justice 'til his last breath. And here's a film that do justice to the beginning of that rebellion. Go see, get rhythm!

Copyright © 2005 Anders Svendsen e-mail address

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