Johnny Cash has such a singular voice that I at first found it hard to believe that anyone could have filled his shoes in a biopic. When I first reported in Treble’s news column that young gifted actor Joaquin Phoenix would fill the Man in Black’s patent leathers, I was skeptical to say the least. This is not to say that I had doubts in Phoenix’s acting ability, after all, I was more than impressed with star turns in both Signs and The Village, in both of which he shines in taking a backseat to a big star and a relative newcomer, and especially in Quills and Hotel Rwanda, in the former a central figure and in the latter a peripheral player. But could I picture him saying, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash?” I was more than pleased to find that he was not only up to the task, but brilliant in his portrayal of the country star with more comebacks than anyone else in the industry. One can tell from watching the film and listening to its magnificent soundtrack that Phoenix did his homework, singing out of the side of his mouth, getting inflections and twangs just right, if not perfect then pretty darn close.
“Get Rhythm,” one of Cash’s faster paced early Sun singles, is one of the standout tracks from Phoenix that opens the album. “Cry Cry Cry,” another early single is just about its equal. Maybe the problem that most people have with this portrayal is that since Cash’s reemergence under Rick Rubin’s guidance, his voice has gotten even deeper, more haunting, and with a certain gravity of aged wisdom. But Cash was once young and somewhat of a wild man, which is exactly what the film chose to convey. Phoenix’s voice may not be as deep and resonant as Cash’s, but he does capture the spirit of each song he interprets. I am conflicted over the fact that the soundtrack features a cleanly recorded version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Generally, with the exception maybe of song compilations, people buy soundtracks only after they have seen the film. In Walk the Line, a hesitant and unsure Cash peforms “Folsom Prison Blues” at a Sun Records audition, only after his group’s gospel songs fall flat. As Cash begins to get his bearings, the Tennessee Two join in and the song becomes whole. I’m torn because that scene is pivotal in the film, and therefore would be an easy pick for the soundtrack, but maybe it only works visually.
Yes, one can still easily tell the difference between Cash and Phoenix, but that’s not really the issue at hand. The real test was to see whether or not Phoenix had the chops to pull off genuine singing ability and musicianship that at least glancingly resembled the legend, and he did just that. Even more of a surprise was the truly astounding performance by Reese Witherspoon. Not only did she put on quite an acting feat, but her renditions of “Wildwood Flower” and especially “Juke Box Blues” are second to none save the originals, so much so, that I have been surprised to find most reviews disparaging her songs. If anything, the soundtrack could have done with more of her surprisingly spirited singing. Then there’s newcomer Waylon Payne, whose hilarious and electric performance as Jerry Lee Lewis could have merited its own separate movie, and One Tree Hill‘s Tyler Hilton, the man who portrays Elvis Presley as quiet and reserved in life and a fireball on stage. It’s almost a crime that this project couldn’t have been made as an HBO mini-series in order to give each their due time, but this was about Cash and Carter and their destined true love. The fact that the film netted Golden Globes for best musical feature, and also for its stars Phoenix and Witherspoon, is testament to the quality of the film and its music alone.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash and His Woman
Various Artists – O, Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack