' ' Cinema Romantico: The Real Soul Of Walk The Line

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Real Soul Of Walk The Line

There is only one cinematic sequence that has so ably captured the essence of just what makes live music so exhilarating. "Almost Famous" didn't do it and neither did "The Commitments" nor "Once." "High Fidelity" has that truly majestic moment when Lisa Bonet's Marie de Salle is covering Frampton at the long-gone Lounge Axe and Rob and Dick and Barry are all listening and watching, rapturous, but that is about the audience's reaction to the music onstage, not the music onstage itself. No, the one moment that manages it occurs in a sequence placed at the 1:10 mark of a 2:15 film (coincidence?) by James Mangold about the life and times of Johnny Cash that won Reese Witherspoon an Oscar for playing June Carter called "Walk the Line."

In a brief moment at an awards show Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down June and pleads for her to go back on tour with him. Reluctantly, she agrees. The film then switches to June, alone onstage with her immaculate autoharp, singing "Wildwood Flower", "my mama's favorite song." It's a beautiful rendition and it's important to note that both Witherspoon and Phoenix did their own singing in the film. This is crucial on a number of levels. It lends a distinct authenticity that, say, Jamie Foxx in "Ray" lacked by being dubbed but in the case of Witherspoon - as you can hear on "Wildwood Flower" - it actually makes some of the music a little bit better than the real life June Carter. Call that blasphemy, fine, but I'm someone who thinks Lucinda Williams's rough-hewn voice is the finest in music and so I can appreciate non-traditional singing but, sorry, man, June Carter just didn't have the tonal magic to these ears. Then June introduces Johnny Cash and he comes out and he and his backing band tear into Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" and it proceeds to work as a rip roaring duet between Johnny and June.

What I love most about live music is what George C. Scott said he looked for in his fellow actors - "Joy Of Performance." That's the golden goose, man. Hey, I adore gloomy, black-hearted, depths-of-despair songs as much as anyone else but when I shell out my hard earned cash for a concert ticket I don't want to see bands staring at their shoes, acting haughty, giving me a political rap, so on and so forth. I want to see Joy Of Performance. Ra Ra Riot has Joy Of Performance. Arcade Fire has Joy Of Performance. Tift Merritt has Joy Of Performance. Kylie has Joy Of Performance. Zola, as previously established, had Joy Of Performance. And you best believe Bruce & The E Streeters have Joy Of Performance. Joaquin & Reese as Johnny & June belting out "It Ain't Me Babe" in that scene have Joy Of Performance like Anheuser-Busch has Yeast.

I return to my original review of it oh so many years ago in the rough pioneer days of this blog and see that I wrote of this particular scene that it made "me want to stand up in the theater and cheer." Which is kinda how really great live music makes you feel, right? James Mangold as director only chooses to present a couple shots throughout this sequence from the front of the stage, and, frankly, I wish he would have done with away those shots too. This isn't our moment. It's their moment. Johnny & June's. Most of the shots are from behind them or pushing in tight on Johnny's face, the camera right there with them, intimately, because that's how they perform this song - intimately. The smiles, the non-verbal asides, the honest-to-God joy. (This is the best version of it available on the internet. Unfortunately the scene is all chopped up and the audio is taken from the studio recording but you can still catch glimpses of the real scene here and there. You should probably just go to Netflix. It's worth it.)

That look from June to Johnny before they even start singing, that look that says, "All right, I'm ready, you ready?" And he sings: "Go away from my window / Leave at your own chosen speed / I’m not the one you want, babe / I’m not the one you need." And then she laughs - oh, mother of mercy, that laugh, and then she joins in. "You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Never weak but always strong / To protect you and defend you / Whether you are right or wrong." And Reese's expression when she sings "wrong" all alone could have won her the Oscar.

Now they really get into it. Frenzied. Impassioned voices. Tearing into the lines. A ragin' joy. "Someone to open each and every door / But it ain’t me, babe / No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for. Babe."

"Go lightly from the ledge, babe / Go lightly on the ground." But now it gets a little more serious because now Johnny notices his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and his three daughters sitting down there in the front row. He loses his smile. He sings, looking at them. "I’m not the one you want, babe / I will only let you down / You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Who will promise never to part / Someone to close his eyes for you / Someone to close his heart." This is tougher to watch. Sure. During these moments I imagine Julianne sitting in the front row at the Tunnel Of Love Tour and watching Bruce and Patti dueting on "One Step Up" and just shaking her head and thinking, "Oh f---. I'm gonna be divorced in a year, aren't I?" But I also like to imagine that, well, Julianne didn't want to be unhappy, did she? She didn't want to be trapped in a failing marriage, right? Look, I'm positive "Walk The Line" trivializes certain aspects of Johnny Cash's real life first marriage and I'm positive that sort of thing was difficult for those real life children to watch in the movie but I'm also positive that June Carter was the real one true love of Johnny Cash's life, and vice versa, and that once all parties got this figured out the better off they all were and this moment is almost all of them realizing it before they realize-realize it. Because then Johnny regains that grin and tears back into the lines with June. "Someone who will die for you and more / But it ain’t me, babe / No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for. Babe." And it all ends with the finest shot of the movie, a long one of Johnny's family - but specifically Vivian - watching the show and June hovering, out of focus, on the edge of the frame, which suggests June's presence in Johnny's entire life.

It would be easy to look at this moment apart from the context of the film, I suppose, and say it ain't as good as the real thing. In his review for the esteemed New York Times A.O. Scott wrote: "(Y)ou have to wait until the final credits to be reminded of what Johnny Cash and June Carter really sounded like. Their disembodied voices carry more presence, more humor and hurt, than anything in the movie itself." Stephanie Zacharek weighed in: "(Phoenix) bravely sings Cash's songs himself, in a voice that gamely struts the territory and yet has one crucial, unforgivable drawback: It just isn't Cash's." But live music is all about reinvention. Enchantress Lissie majestically covering hip hop maven Kid Cudi (and that's not one of those crummy "Look how ironic we're being!" hip hop covers - that's mad passion, yo) and Justin Townes Earle covering one of my 10 favorite Springsteen songs, a song driven by piano and driving it by finger picking instead, and Springsteen re-inventing (and bettering - I said it!) Dylan's "I Want You". Just cuz it ain't the real thing doesn't mean it's not the real thing. For a brief window, Joaquin and Reese step outside of the film and make this song their own.

But, above all else, this scene knows that what lies at the heart of so much great music is juxtaposition. Sad songs can be so happy and happy songs can be so sad and dark songs can brighten and bright songs can darken. Which is why when Johnny and June keep hollering "It ain't me, babe" we all know what they're really saying.

"Oh, it's definitely you, babe."


Andrew K. said...

I hate that people have all but forgotten how good WALK THE LINE was. Sure, Reese wasn't my choice for the win, but I'd have nominated her. Phoenix in particular was excellent here (and not just a lesser version of Foxx in RAY...a sentiment which never fails to irk me).

Nick Prigge said...

Agree whole-heartedly with your last statement. I always felt Foxx's work in "Ray" was just a glamorous impression. (I like him much better that year in "Collateral.") And certainly there are times when Phoenix falls into an impression because I think it's kind of impossible not to at certain points in those sort of roles but...

When he collapses onstage? When he pulls the drugs out of his own guitar for the cops? At the diner counter with Reese? That's all Joaquin.