When things are going wrong because it is too hot to think and the glass is slipping from my grasp because of the sweat on my hands, then I know that it’s time to go and see a movie. After two hours sitting still in the cool and the dark, I can rely on coming out feeling a whole lot better. I was half thinking of going to see Memoirs of a Geisha just to push the point, but I went to see Walk the Line about Johnny Cash instead.
I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash before I went to this film. One thing I knew was that my favourite house athletics coach in primary school, Mrs Kelso, had a Johnny Cash t-shirt that she always wore on sports days. One year, Mrs Kelso got sick and had to go to hospital and she missed sports day, and our whole house pledged to run our fastest and try our best and win that day, just for Mrs Kelso. While she was in hospital, I overheard two of the older girls paying out on her Johnny Cash shirt, I remember thinking that that Wasn’t Very Nice. Fast forward to my undergrad years in the mid 1990s; I was living in The Gap and my nutsest flatmate ever, Adrian, would make a point of requesting Ring of Fire whenever we went out dancing, which was every Tuesday night at Babble On, downstairs on Elizabeth Street. Can anyone remember the name of that club night? Was it Buggered? I think it was something to do with sodomy, anyway. Ah, Tuesday night dancing. Those were the days. Adrian used to love having the dance floor to himself while Ring of Fire was on.
So I didn’t know if Walk the Line was going to be just another musician bio-pic; especially because at the start it looked quite similar to a movie about Elvis that I’d seen on telly at midday recently: Southern guy with no money and his black hair in a pompadour, makes his way into the music business via a recording studio where anyone can make a record (kind of like blogging, no? anyone can have a turn). As I watched Johnny become successful and rich and move his family into a bigger house, then become addicted to alcohol and drugs, I was worried that what I had been enjoying up til that point was going to follow that familiar second act plotline: the star’s painful descent. And I know that this was Johnny Cash’s real life story, so the writers didn’t make up the plot themselves, but I was so glad that they decided to emphasise the religious context, by which I mean all the bits about singing hymns, and sinning, and actually believing in the god you mention in your songs, and spirituals and gospel. I loved the fact that he and his mother used to actually sing in the fields as they picked the cotton by hand. I also loved how bizarre his mother’s hair became after they got rich. I loved how he lost the battle with the tractor, but finally found a peaceful sort of life in that house near the lake surrounded by trees. And I loved how June turned out to be his saviour, in the end.
I thought that Joaquin and Reese did a lovely job of it. I don’t know what a real Johnny Cash fan would think, and I was struck at the end when the credits were rolling, and they were playing a real recording of theirs, by how different the sound was. But I felt so much better when I walked out of the cinema, that I sang Ring of Fire in the car, all the way home.