Year 2, Day 7 - 1/7/10 - Movie #372
BEFORE: Based on my movie week so far, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and predict that Johnny Cash had a rough childhood, humble beginnings in the rural South, was improbably discovered by a record producer, struggled with substance abuse, and had some complicated personal relationships. Then I'll report back after the movie and we'll see how close I came.
THE PLOT: A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash's life, from his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his rise to fame.
AFTER: Nailed it! It turns out these biopics are like gymnastics or ice-skating, there are compulsory plot elements that need to be present to create the maximum drama. So far I haven't been able to prove that they all had the same screenwriters, but if they did it wouldn't really surprise me. So the question becomes, after nailing the requirements, how does each movie do in the freestyle portion of the program?
For most people, that probably comes down to individual preference for the music of the subject at hand. I'm not a big Johnny Cash fan, but I do like some of the covers he did later in his life, like Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and the Beatles' "In My Life".
This is another one of those big, meaty, Oscar-bait roles, and of course Joaquin Phoenix was nominated, but lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman from "Capote". I'm not that surprised, because Phoenix plays Cash as brash, moody, tempermental with a little crazy on the side. He really comes alive on stage, which shows a big divide between his roles as a family man and an artist - so it comes off as something like a split personality role, something also suggested in "Ray".
Extra points go to Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for (allegedly) doing their own singing. I'm assuming it's extra tough to look AND sound like a famous person in a biopic.
What I really liked was seeing the development of Cash's signature style - as the movie wears on, his voice gets lower and lower and he appears more and more comfortable belting out his songs. I'm reminded of the film "Gypsy" where you see Gypsy Rose Lee getting more and more polished as a performer, the first time she takes off a glove seductively and the crowd goes wild, so she keeps that in the act and starts working on the best way to remove her dress...until the power of a montage makes her into the world's best stripper. Cash goes through a similar process, noticing that the audiences seem to dig his bass voice and songs, and eventually that's how you end up with "Ring of Fire".
I was pretty impressed with this film, though a little disappointed that Cash did not, in fact, shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Maybe that's in the bonus footage on the DVD release... However, Cash seems to have been the first recording artist to completely trash a dressing room, so that's one for the trivia books.
Also starring Robert Patrick (as Cash's father), Tyler Hilton (no relation to Paris) as Elvis Presley, and in a wacky coincidence, Shooter Jennings portraying his own dad, Waylon Jennings.
RATING: 8 out of 10 guitar picks (7 for story + 1 for not lip-synching to the artist's original tracks)