Plot: 1968, Folsom Prison, California. As his band jams, Johnny Cash reminisces backstage. Arkansas, 1944. While young Cash fishes, his brother Jack is killed in a sawmill accident. Germany, 1952. The enlisted Cash phones his sweetheart Vivian, and starts to compose songs. Memphis, 1955. Now married with kids, Cash and the Tennessee Two audition and cut ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ for Sun Records’ Sam Phillips. On tour with fellow Sun artists (including Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis), Johnny falls for married singer June Carter. In 1956, June is divorced and Cash reaches number 14 in the US charts. Two years later, Johnny publicly woos June on stage, to her disdain, but descends into drunkenness and drug abuse. Following a row, he writes and records ‘I Walk the Line’. News of June’s new marriage provokes more bingeing. 1964. Johnny persuades June to tour again, and their affair rekindles, but the tour is cancelled when Johnny collapses onstage, and is later busted for drugs. Johnny buys a lakeside house in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where June helps him to dry out. After receiving fan letters from prisoners, Johnny performs at Folsom Prison, creating a hit live album. February 1968. Johnny proposes to June onstage; she accepts. They remain married until their deaths in 2003.
Film note: Walk the Line explores the life of the iconic country singer, Johnny Cash, and in doing so captures something of an exciting period of US cultural history. The film has some claim to authenticity as Cash was personally involved in the development of the project until his death in 2003, and, according to Joaquin Phoenix, made a powerful impression on cast and crew (qtd in Celebrating the Man in Black). The film had a troubled journey to the screen with Sony, Universal, Paramount, Focus Features, Warner Bros and Columbia Pictures all rejecting the project, suggesting scepticism towards the idea of country music or Cash as popular entertainment. However, they were all proved wrong by the impressive box-office figures, with the film’s success following on from the similarly constructed Academy Award-winning biopic Ray (2004), and perhaps also cashing in on the inevitable posthumous revival of interest in Cash’s work.
The ‘pop performer’ musical The cinema has always brokered a strong bond with music, and Walk the Line’s popular appeal lies in its engaging portrayal of both the man and the music. Silent movies had musical accompaniments that amplified the film’s atmosphere and characters’ feelings, and the contemporary film industry has seen a mini-boom of music biopics including Ray, De-Lovely (2004) and Beyond the Sea (2004). While genres and trends such as the western and film noir are restricted to certain periods, the musical has been a constant feature throughout the history of Hollywood, transforming itself to meet new audience expectations. Two trends can be identified in the production history of the genre: ‘classical’ and ‘pop-performer’ musicals. Classical musicals present most singing episodes with minimal justification, whilst pop-performer musicals restrict singing and dancing to plausible settings in the name of realism (Telotte 210). This shift away from the classical form occurred as the “prime expressive elements [of] song and dance [became] clearly circumscribed”, meaning that “people no longer suddenly burst into song” (Telotte 48), at least not within a public environment. Fred Astaire singing in the middle of Broadway in The Band Wagon (1953) did not shock a classical-era spectator but now appears abrupt and awkward to modern audiences. In this respect Walk the Line follows the patterns of the pop-performer’ musical: the characters do not suddenly break into song, rather singing is conducted by professionals and onstage performances motivate musical numbers.
Musical biographies produced in the 1970s and 1980s tended to separate the lyrical content of the songs from the performer’s state of mind, portraying music as a lifestyle choice rather than a medium for personal expression, punctuating the story with songs without integrating them into the narrative. Instead emphasis was placed on the autobiographical, stressing the ups and downs of the star’s career. The drama incorporated the songs as far as they represented the ‘sound’ of a given time, but focused on the frenetic lifestyle of a popular performer; “music functions dramatically because of what it deprives the character of, not what it enables him to express”(Schlotterbeck 84). This can be seen in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), where the central conflict between the singer/songwriter Loretta Lynn and her husband Doolittle intensifies as the demands of Lynn’s professional schedule lead him to become increasingly jealous and unfaithful. Her music becomes a strain on their relationship, but is not used to express her grief. In contrast, more recent musical biographies, including Walk the Line, present songs as an immediate expression of the character’s emotions. In fact, Bordwell argues that contemporary musical films simply ‘redeploy’ the expressive elements of classical filmmaking at a faster pace (qtd. in Schlotterbeck 87).
Walk the Line works on both these levels. Fitting the tradition of 1970s pop-performer musicals, the film shows the tension Cash undergoes balancing his professional and private life as his musical success destroys his marriage and leads him to drug dependency. At the same time, the music is used as a “dramatic tool as opposed to a dramatic pause” (Mangold, source unidentified), functioning as a subtext to the narrative. When Cash sings Home of the Blue before inviting June to join him on stage, the lyrics forecast the tumultuous love affair ahead. Once they become a couple their songs function as the expression of personal feelings, deployed in the manner of a classical musical: the performance of ‘Jackson’ first marks their initial affair, then their marriage. Musical sequences in Walk the Line meet contemporary expectations of realism without compromising their expressiveness. By these measures, Walk the Line conforms to formulaic biopic genre expectations, especially as these cohere around the pop performer’ musical.
The biopic and history The genre’s persistent popularity is partly due to the rich source of narrative and character that biographies provide filmmakers with; the ‘based on a true story’ tagline acts as a ‘hook’ for both industry and audience (Surpin 90). Public interest (genuine or fabricated) in the lives of celebrities is a phenomenon that can be traced back to the advent of cinema itself, with fan magazines such as Motion Picture Story (1911) and Photoplay (1912). A key pleasure here is the taking of what is seen on screen to be somehow an accurate account of a life.
The ‘real’ is at the very heart of cinema; the earliest film theoreticians, such as Siegfried Kracauer, discussed the medium’s privileged relationship with the physical realm (1960). During the filming of Walk the Line a significant investment was made in using the production design to stressing veracity and attention to detail. Phoenix wore fifty six different costumes and ninety different sets were created for the film, following meticulous research within the Cash family’s archive and fans’ private collections (20th Century Fox 18). The lead actors studied their roles through by working with the Cash and Carter families, and Witherspoon almost left the project after she struggled for months to reproduce Carter’s sound (Celebrating the Man in Black). This level of visual and auditory detail gives the film a strong realist effect. Custen argues that “most viewers, at least in part, see history through the lens of the film biography” (2); Hollywood is able to construct public history, providing the audience with an apparently truthful vision of reality. The factual realism of Hollywood biographies is incidental once the audience is convinced of their authenticity; they become real because they are believed to be real. This is dangerous because biopics are often the only source of information many people will have on a given historical subject or time. Film therefore has the potential to play a major part in the shaping of the cultural and historical identity of a nation, producing and disseminating myths.
History is always to some extent a ‘mediation’ of reality, “a set of discursive practices encoded in a time and often a place removed from their actual occurrence” (Custen 11). Most writing on the biopic has considered it to be a particularly unreliable form of history. Steve Neale, for example, discusses biopics as typically sentimental and conservative (93), while Howard Good observes that the classical biopic flourishing during the Cold War as a means of upholding conventional values through the portrayal of upstanding American figures (188). Walk the Line makes yet another claim against the real by confounding the conservatism at the heart of the biopic genre. Cash is a potentially subversive figure, ostensibly not conventional material for a Hollywood biopic, and Walk the Line openly presents audiences with his substance abuse and erratic behaviour. In a classical-era film these elements would have been censored. However, society’s attitude to these ‘realities’ has evolved. Reflecting on the 2005 biopics Capote, Walk the Line, Good Night and Good Luck, Cinderella Man and Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Hazelton comments that in these films controversial topics have become standard (18-19). In fact, the contemporary biopic would seem to be in distinct contrast to its classical counterparts, with an increased attention to the lives of ‘controversial’ subjects – people of colour, non-heterosexuals and other socially challenging figures. As Muir notes, the portrayal of Cole Porter differs greatly from Night and Day (1946) to De Lovely; the former repressing the fact of Porter’s homosexuality, the latter clearly establishing this as central to his character and his music (249). While, as noted, Walk the Line is in many ways conventional in form and narrative structure, its subject matter – the controversial life of Cash – is potentially more challenging and transgressive.
However, there are problems with this claim. At the time depicted in the film Rock and Roll was a controversial new movement, born of black communities and a new youth culture. The film hints at an awareness of these origins: photographs of black musicians are on the walls as Cash peers through the window of Sam Phillips’ recording studio, and when Cash first hears Rock and Roll music spilling from the studio he sees a black shoeshine boy working hard outside, then notices obviously well-off trendy young white men getting out of a sports car with instruments and beer, the contrast suggesting an appropriation of black culture to white benefit. However, this functions as a minor footnote to the rest of the White-dominated performances. The countercultural nature of the movement is shown by the young audiences, the attitude towards sex and drugs, and reasserted at the end with the Folsom Prison concert. Yet, this is told on a personal level through the narrative of Cash, thereby eliding social context. As such, even though Cash’s errant behaviour is depicted, the focus of Walk the Line on the romantic story of Cash and Carter makes the film a conventional Hollywood narrative, ultimately rendering Cash a safe rather than subversive icon, and depoliticising the film.
Living the dream Walk the Line achieves a mythic quality in several ways. Hollywood promotes traditional romantic values with 95% of classical narratives reinforcing heterosexual relations (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson). This is reinforced in musicals “by doubling romantic relationships with the energy and beauty of song and dance” (Altman 250). In Walk the Line, Cash and Carter’s relationship revolves around music and the film ultimately rests on the culmination of their romance in a long and seemingly loving marriage. Biopics also attempt to ‘normalise’ genius by allowing the spectator to identify with the protagonist and situating them in familiar experiences, thereby reinforcing meritocratic US ideals (Custen 17). For example, Cash returns home from tour to a family dinner with squabbling children, wife and parents. To some extent the film appears to undermine these values, presenting an outsider rising to fame and success within a controversial musical movement, whilst Cash’s drug abuse and extramarital affairs render him socially ‘deviant’ (Tebbe-Grossman qtd. in Rollins 518). However, the film seems to almost forgive these controversies, hinting that the reasons for his drug addiction are his frustrated relationships and troubled childhood. It keeps the harsh realities – sickness, rows with loved ones and inability to continue working – in perspective by presenting Cash as “a victim of (his) environmental circumstances” (Rollins 521). This extenuation of his behaviour is ultimately a redemptive one. Walk the Line affirms faith in positive lifestyle change, rehabilitation and honest love as Cash overcomes his addictions through his love for June, reconciles with his father, and moves to a big house in the country. These redemptive gestures echo and reinforce the basic founding beliefs of the American nation: the importance of family, a simple, pastoral way of living, and the need to take personal responsibility.
Most importantly the film embodies the principles of ‘American Adam’ and the ‘self-made man’ (Rollins 564). These figures emerged in early 19th century literature and shaped notions of American exceptionalism. They have provided sources of narrative in film from classic westerns to more contemporary ‘character’ pieces, such as Forrest Gump (1994) and The Truman Show (1998). The American Adam is usually estranged from his roots, and reflects his Christian namesake’s innocence, naivety and optimism: unaware of the limiting constraints of human society. Following this, Cash is alienated from his father, and plunges into the unknown and challenging world of the music industry and Rock and Roll lifestyle, almost to be destroyed by his habit of embracing everything, until the redemptive conclusion where he returns to something of an Edenic state. Phoenix’s acting fosters this myth; he delivers a sensitive and sometimes childlike performance, steering the audience to this original vision of innocence as virtue. Even his final emotional collapse at the family meal at the lake house and his subsequent recovery with June feeding him raspberries conveys a sense of naïve vulnerability. The ‘self-made man’ again raises ideas of meritocratic optimism. Cash’s music career is a prime example of the rags-to-riches story, starting out in rural hardship and poverty, elevating himself to success through ambition, hard work and personal sacrifice. These two idealised figures embody the myths that are central to US national identity. The 19th century narratives typically followed the fate of the American Adam to either transcendence and success in shaping the world, or failure and ruination against a cruel and corrupting world (Rollins 565). Rollins discusses how many “Adamic hero[es] [are] disillusioned or even destroyed by […] confrontation with the harsh realities of contemporary society” (565). However, both Forrest Gump and Truman Burbank both retain their innocence and idealism, suggesting contemporary mainstream Hollywood prefers optimistic conclusions.
In the end, Walk the Line has the controversial figure of Cash reinforce a traditional, romantic view of US identity by returning to family ideals, romantic love, a pastoral idyll, and the maintenance of career success; while these are qualified by the depiction of the need to overcome controversial and difficult experiences and challenges on the way, they are reinforced nevertheless. The conclusion is a positive one, gratifying for a society wracked with division in relation to the War on Terror in 2005. Rollins suggests that the protagonist’s disillusionment in films “made during times of social critique or reform” (565) is common. Walk the Line can be located in a cycle of 1950s biopics, set in times of social change, including Capote (2005), Howl (2010), Good Night and Good Luck (2005) and the forthcoming On the Road (2011). As critical or countercultural figures, the protagonists undermine the trend of conservatism in biopics to varying degrees. However, whilst the social critiques attack US institutions they also show that solutions lie with individuals of integrity, such as tenacious journalists or literary movements, concluding on an affirmative, positive note. Cash’s personal struggles of innocence and corruption confront this social unrest, then show redemption is possible. Walk the Line can be seen as a reaffirmation of the nation’s founding myths, restoring faith in America as the global exemplar of the power of individuality, progression and integrity.
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Written by Charlotte de Champfleury (2011); edited by William Hadley (2012), Queen Mary, University of London
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Copyright © 2012 Charlotte de Champfleury/Mapping Contemporary Cinema