On the Big Board
||Full of energy and created with obvious love for its biographical subjects. Reese Witherspoon is incandescent.
||The highest compliment I can give Walk the Line is that I'm probably the only person in Tennessee who wasn't excited to see it yet I was captivated nonetheless.
||Better than the similarly formulaic Ray, but still not the galvanizing film experience it should have been. Phoenix and Witherspoon sing incredibly well, but Witherspoon's acting is most impressive.
The late, great Johnny Cash was born and raised in Arkansas, and by the time he was a mere 12 years of age, he was already writing his own songs. Inspired by the country music he heard on the radio, the young man found himself motivated to create his own music and even sang on a radio station while he was in high school.
After graduating from college in 1950, Cash moved to Detroit to work in the auto industry. That stint was brief, though, as he enlisted in the Air Force when the Korean War broke out. During this period of his life, Cash purchased his very first guitar and taught himself how to play. It was at this point that his songwriting blossomed, resulting in one of his most famous tunes -- "Folsom Prison Blues." In 1954, Cash's stint in the Air Force ended, and he married a Texas woman named Vivian Leberto. The couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Cash attended broadcasting school to learn the radio announcing trade. His nights were free for music, and he joined a trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, who would later become "The Tennessee Two," his backup group. The group played from time to time on the local radio station as they tried to get set up for an audition at Sun Records.
Eventually, Cash did get that audition, but only after the company's founder Sam Phillips turned him down as a gospel singer. Cash came back with a song called "Hey Porter," which soon was paired with "Cry Cry Cry" as his debut single for the label. That song entered the country charts at number 14 in 1955, and led to a second single, the aforementioned "Folsom Prison Blues." It reached the country Top Five, but Cash's real breakthrough was "I Walk the Line," which was number one on the country charts for six weeks and even crossed over to the pop charts.
Soon, Cash was viewed as one of the most successful country artists on the scene, and made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1957. While all of the other performers were adorned in glitzy rhinestone attire, Cash dressed all in black, which eventually led to his famous nickname -- The Man in Black. That same year, he was the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album.
After Sun refused to allow him to record a gospel album and failed to increase the star's record royalties, Cash jumped ship and moved over to Columbia records. There, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (recently heard on The Rundown soundtrack) became one of his biggest hits, and he was also to make that gospel album he'd been dreaming about. That 1959 record kicked off a series of thematic-style records that would become the singer's trademark.
The hits kept on rolling but the crazy pace his career was taking took their toll on Cash. He began taking amphetamines, with his dramatically increasing drug use finally affecting his work. He was producing fewer records, was having trouble in live shows, and was starting to run into trouble with the law, especially after starting a forest fire.
It was here when Cash met June Carter, whose song "Ring of Fire," which she co-wrote with Merle Kilgore, helped the singer back to the top of the country charts and was another pop hit. Nonetheless, his demons were too difficult to overcome, and he fell even further into addiction. He was arrested for attempting to smuggle amphetamines into the country in his guitar case in 1965, and then found that the Grand Ole Opry would not allow him to perform. As a result, he destroyed the place's footlights. One year later, his wife filed for divorce and Cash moved to Nashville. His destructive tendencies continued until he developed a close friendship with Carter, who helped him to shake his addictions and converted the singer to fundamentalist Christianity. His career bounced back, and the couple was married soon after.
After that time, Cash's career went through numerous periods of popularity and subsequent decline. His most popular album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, was both a pop and country hit, and he had his only top ten pop single, "A Boy Named Sue," shortly afterward. Cash played with Bob Dylan, performed for President Nixon, appeared in a movie with Kirk Douglas, and was the topic of a documentary movie. Cash and Carter campaigned for the rights of Native Americans and prisoners, and his hits continued through the early '70s.
In the mid-'70s, Cash's career went through a down period. Though he had some minor hits, he was less of a factor than he had been. He did become the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, but his record sales continued to fall throughout the '80s, bringing him trouble with Columbia. He had some moderate luck with a "supergroup" album. The Highwaymen, featuring Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson was released in 1985. Soon, Cash ended his relationship with Columbia and moved over to Mercury Nashville. He frequently clashed with the label over stylistic differences, particularly as more pop-oriented country music became the norm. His contract with Mercury ended quickly.
He experienced a major resurgence after signing with American Records, which led to the American Recordings series of albums. Produced by American Records founder Rick Rubin, the songs were performed acoustically and a stark blend of sounds. Critics loved the first album of the bunch, and soon he was working with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Cash's version of I Won't Back Down is remarkable), appearing on VH-1 Storytellers, and covering such diverse bands/singers as U2, Danzig, Beck and Neil Diamond.
Cash's coup de grace, though, was the amazing American IV: The Man Comes Around. Recorded as both the singer and his wife were undergoing numerous health problems that brought on ruminations on death and the afterlife, this effective farewell album was raw and emotional, and produced the single "Hurt," a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that earned him both Grammy nominations and MTV Video Awards attention. (The Man Comes Around is actually the superior song by far, however.)
Soon after the video for "Hurt" began to see critical attention, Cash's wife June died of complications following heart surgery. Heartbroken, Cash died four months later of complications from diabetes at the age of 71. His passing was deeply mourned by all of Nashville and fans worldwide.
It's a fascinating life story, more than worthy of translation to a big-screen biopic. Joaquin Phoenix will play The Man in Black, while Reese Witherspoon will portray his beloved June. Because of Cash's late-career resurgence, the film should generate substantial interest across a broad range of ages. (Kim Hollis/BOP)