Johnny Cash – Walking the line of Fiction?

Comparing the Film ‘Walk the Line’ with the Autobiography ‘Cash’

Whilst never a big Country fan I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by ‘The Man in Black’ Mr Johnny Cash. There were times when it seemed like he must have been granted parole from prison just so he could visit it to make one of his famous recordings. No wonder his fan mail was often from inmates and outsiders who seemed to think he was an inmate too.

In his autobiography ‘Cash’ Johnny writes of their being four of him in effect:
‘Cash’ – the musician and star (and as wife June put it ‘the star and egomaniac)
‘Johnny’ – to friends and aquaintancies
John – To June and very close friends
J.R. – (his initials) to family

It’s not surprising then that when Fox  came to film his early years getting a character to fit all of these was going to literally be a case of ‘Walk the Line’. I settled down to watch the film of that very name this weekend.

All credit to Joaquim Phoenix who has no right to look anything like Cash but makes an incredible job of it. Onstage he has all the right moves and gestures. Musically he also hits all the right notes, quite literally. Reese Witherspoon is the spitting image of the picture in Johnny’s book depicting June Carter at The Grand Ole Opry in 1958 and rightly deserved her Oscar in 2005.

Problems arise with what’s actually depicted and how. Almost anticipating this problem Johnny actually started his 1997 book admitting that no two people see anything alike. He uses the story of a break-in at his Jamaica House to illustrate the point. Not surprisingly then there are cries of ‘This is just Hollywood’, This is not how it was’ especially from Johnny’s daughter Rosanne, who says the film hurts because it’s people she knew and loved and situations she knew but she doesn’t recognize them. A sort of ‘Village of the Damned’ cry of ‘These are not my children’ in reverse you might say.

It’s a reason I’ve never cared to read books about historical figures written long after they were dead. How can anyone really write a biography about Henry VIII five hundred years after he died? We all know the party game: Start a story and pass it on around the table – the more people that pass it on the less semblance it has of the original story.

The best we can ever hope for are small scraps of information. That’s all we can truly trust.
Charles Dickens didn’t always have that beard, Churchill was once a small boy who didn’t smoke cigars, Robert Johnson will always be wearing a fedora hat in our minds eye. If we want to add to that basic information then we have to realise that it’s all subjective and based on how others saw reality.

There’s a lot made in the film of the death of Johnny’s older brother in a sawmill accident, it’s used very much to explain his inner anger and emotion for the rest of the film (the point is made so heavily at the opening that the the director even felt it was safe to drop scenes depicting the funeral and one where the adult Johnny sees his brother in a dream during his troubled first marriage).

Johnny Cash says in his autobiography – “events start slipping and sliding” and Rosanne Cash claimed in an interview that ‘Walk the Line’ is “just a Hollywood Movie” and not how it was.
Reading Johnny’s book gives me the impression he would have said about the movie:
“I guess everyone sees things differently, maybethat was it, maybe it wasn’t”

The film version of Johny Cash? Mesmerizing performances by the main stars and super music (not surprisingly). Whether it’s truth or Hollywood maybe even the real characters couldn’t tell you for sure.

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