Monday, December 12, 2005

Johnny-Come-Lately

The "Biopic" is not my friend.

I'm not the sort of person, for better or worse, who really loves sitting down in a darkened movie theater to watch someone's "life story" unspool on the screen. I say "life story" in quotation marks because as Vern, the great sage, seer, and filmatist writes in his latest column, they're all basically telling the same story no matter whose life it is; a string of "dramatic" events hung together in a pretty/inspiring/provocative row.

It's like a recipe for shortbread, minus the actual bread. Add one part drug addiction, two parts marital infidelity, a cup of parental misunderstanding/abuse, and a healthy pinch of guilt over childhood tragedy. Bake for two hours.

"Walk the Line" ends up adhering to this E-Z Bake oven approach, yet I walked out of it remarking to my date that the Johnny Cash biopic is one of the best films I've seen in years.

Why?

Well, for one thing, that Phoenix kid can act. And sing. And play guitar. Ditto, that Witherspoon gal. Hell, the woman plays an autoharp in the film. Easy to learn or not, that's pretty impressive to me.

You want to talk "Best Actor" accolades? This year, you have to start with Phoenix. Like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Phoenix seems to realize that he's playing an iconic force as much as he's playing a man, and he summons Cash in a performance of calculated detail and uncalculated ferocity.

Reese Witherspoon - an actress that, to be honest, I've never much cared for - does something similar with her role, and she's just as (if not moreso) musically talented than Phoenix. The girl can sing, yo. And she's got chops. Dramatic ones, that is. She's also got a hell of a pair of legs, but that's neither here nor there (great legs, though). Her June Carter is an angel, and one hellish muse to Johnny Cash. She, if I may use the vernacular, done fucked him up real good.

Their relationship is the heart of the film and I'd venture to say that Walk the Line is the date movie of the year. The love story between Carter and Cash is mythic - all the more so for being true. I don't think its spoiling anything to tell you that Cash spent ten years, some of them very-much-married years, pining for Carter. On screen such a lengthy courtship might threaten to bore the bejeezus from you, but both performers sell their attraction to one another with such intensity that I found myself fascinated with them.

Heart's not enough to make a classic, though. Any pianist'll tell you that it's all about soul; Walk the Line's soul is suffused with the glorious agony of creative expression. That sounds like a term paper thesis, but stay with me.

I'm what you might call a creative type. I love to write, whether its words or music; more than love, actually. I need to do these things. Without some outlet I think I'd wither up and die. Not in the poetic, figurative sense but in the literal, actual sense. Life does not make sense to me without the creative impulse, and I say this not with pleasure, but with a mixture of fondness and melancholy.

Because needing anything, whether it's a woman, a drug, or a creative outlet is not romantic business, though it can be. In the end, it's scary business; its addiction - good or bad.

Walk the Line nails the feeling of needing to create something - of wanting, aching to take the unspoken, unsung thoughts in your head and pour them out into the waiting world. Phoenix's performance - all nervous, twitching energy and subdued fire at first - wrings buckets full of subtext free about what that kind of need can do to a man. I've never seen that feeling played out so eloquently onscreen before. It's both reassuring and unnerving, and that's how I tend to like my movies.

Talking about the film without talking about its music would be like talking about Sin City without talking about Carla Gugino - possible, but silly.

The music in the film is extraordinary for two reasons. The first reason being, of course, it's sheer Johnny Cashiness. Cash was an American original, the creator of a singular sound, and his music is beloved by country music traditionalists, rockabilly hipsters, Wilco-listening mopheads, Hell's Angels, and the elderly, amongst others. His sound transcends the label of "country." It is, as one character in the film so accurately observes, steady as a train and sharp as a knife.

The second reason is that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon perform the equivalent of an on-screen seance (minus the cheese cloth). Unlike say, Ray, where Jamie Foxx lip-synched to the real Ray Charles, all of Walk the Line's musical numbers were performed by the actors, looking like they're channeling the spirits of June Carter and Johnny Cash out from some deep inner well-of-the-souls.

When we watch Johnny Cash and his band performing for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, we're really watching actors Joaquin Phoenix, Dan John Miller, and Larry Bagby play and sing for us, the audience. This is outstandingly cool on a number of levels. For starters, Phoenix is good. His voice recreates Cash's revelatory, resonant baritone in a way that's reverent, but respectful. It doesn't so much imitate Cash's sound as pay homage to it, tapping into the memory of the real man's voice as much as the timbre.

On another level, it's cool because just as Phoenix's Cash is auditioning for Phillips, Phoenix is auditioning for the audience. It's oh, so very "Meta." Starting out looking unsteady and unsure, we watch as Phoenix visibly and aurally transforms himself into the legendary singer before our eyes, and it's a crackerjack moment of performance, complete with prize.

The rest of the music, courtesy of O Brother, Where Art Thou's producer, T Bone Burnett, is just as good. We get to see a young Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis rockin' out live, as well as June Carter's solo autoharp performance, and it's all rock-solid stuff.

Walk the Line's been out now for weeks, but if you haven't seen it yet, do so. It's a good film, one of the best mainstream flicks I've seen in recent years. See it for the love story, which is stirring and moving. See it for the way it distills the passion for creation. See it for the performances, which are true and mighty impressive. See it because I said so, and my word is LAW.

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