Saturday, December 03, 2005

Thoughts on the new Johnny Cash movie


I have been a huge Johnny Cash fan for years; I even had this Johnny Cash poster in my dorm room when I was in college. I probably own at least 20 of the man's albums or more, which is really only a dent in the man's discography. The 'man in black' put out an unbelieveable number of albums in his lifetime. I am not sure of the exact number, but it is well into the 100+ range if you count the single LPs and the joint albums he did with other musicians. I guess that is how you become the only man to be inducted into both the Rock and Country Music Halls of Fame.

People naturally assume by this that I am a huge country music fan, which is true only to a point. I do enjoy real (or I suppose what is now known as classic) country music. You know the types: Cash (a moment of silence please), Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, that crowd. Ever since country music hit the mainstream in the mid to late '80s, the genre has tanked in my opinion. I recoil in mortal horror at the mention of Alan Jackson's Chattahoochee coochie. Likewise, I think Cash would turn over in his grave before singing some garbage like Kenny Chesney's 'She thinks my tractor's sexy.' (I feel like I can pick on that song specifically because Chesney is an aquaintance of mine as he is from my hometown in Luttrell, Tennessee.)

Its hard to put into words exactly why Cash resonates with me on such a deep level. Maybe we are on the same wavelength, or it is because he always told it like it was. He also knew how to tell a good story in music form (Listen to: Ira Hayes, Casey Joney, John Henry's Hammer). But I think the fun of his music was that he was not above the risk of sounding silly (Listen to: A Boy named Sue) or trying new things (American IV: The Man comes Around album.)

My critique of where American music has gone wrong in the last ten years is that country music has become too trite and silly while the Rock genre has lost the ability to make fun songs (Honestly, when was the last new Rock song you heard that was just something fun-no political invective, no teen angst, it didn't have to particularly make any sense or statement-something you could groove to? There are a few here and there, but they are few and far between).

Even with that aside, neither genre has artists that can make all around good albums that you can listen to beginning to end with all tracks being of the quality to be played on the radio. For example, listen to virtually any Beatles or Cash album. Randomly pick a song off of it, and I would virtually guarantee that whatever song you picked is a classic in its own right. Nowadays, the pressure is for an artist to have one, maybe 2, hit songs off an album and the rest is just filler junk. They might not even have a hit song and just be an eye candy or flash in the pan band. Marketable sex appeal and no substance. Its like buying a cigar that has dried out and with about 3 puffs is all gone.

Being the resident Cash fan, I have had several people ask me what I thought about the movie. I actually put off seeing the new Johnny Cash movie for a long time for several reasons. Biopic movies can have an agenda. They can be an air the dirty laundry tell-all kind of thing. Or they can be hero worship (see last year's Ray). Or they can be just flat out impersonation fests with no real acting or cinematography involved. Cash, himself, refused to turn this venture into a TV-movie and was involved in the preliminary decisions before he died. This made me feel somewhat better. And what I have seen of Joaquin Phoenix impresses me (The Village comes to mind. And as I recall, he was the only person involved with Gladiator who actually should have won an Oscar). All that was offset by the fact that Reese Witherspoon was in the role of June Carter. I really detest Reese Witherspoon. (Two of the three times I have had to get up and walk out of a movie involved Reese Witherspoon.)

It was with that background that I finally went and saw Walk the Line. All in all, as much as I dislike Reese Witherspoon, she pulled off June Carter incredibly well. Also, I especially appreciated some of the early scenes that were tidbits for fans who were well acquainted with Cash's music. You saw several vignettes of ordinary day to day happening that became the substance for many of Cash's earlier songs at Capitol Records.
I had not been aware that the major plot for the movie revolved around Cash's concert at Folsom Prison which turned into the classic Live at Folsom Prison album. I had only heard the movie had done some scenes involving that concert. That album is bar none my all time favorite album. I very nearly hyperventilated at the scene near the end when Cash is singing the Cocaine Blues song at Folsom Prison. I finally understand what left over hippies feel like when they hear Stairway to Heaven. I can honestly say that that was the first time I have sat through a movie, gone out, bought another ticket, and sat through the same movie a second time. I was absolutely astounded. I give it 5 arrows (in lieu of stars). And I rarely give a movie that high a rating.

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