“Is that all there was to the Man in Black?”
From “The Man in Black,” 1971:
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughta be a Man in Black.
Thumbs up and down. I was thoroughly entertained by Walk the Line, James Mangold’s attempt at the first cinematic commentary on the recently deceased Johnny Cash. The acting and singing were superb. T. Bone Burnett’s musical production is often mesmerizing. But the narrative arc attracts criticism, particularly the reduction of Cash’s life to a quest for June Carter and a kind of Oedipus complex with his father.
Reese Witherspoon can’t easily be judged on her faithfulness to June Carter’s historical character unless one has access to copious clips from Carter’s early career. That said, Witherspoon’s acting and singing are strong in the role she plays as a coquettish country legend occasionally pestered by Christian guilt. Witherspoon’s singing and Hee Haw-like sketch smarts are admirable. She has it down.
But the film’s focus is of course Cash. I was in awe of Joaquin Phoenix’s masterful portrayal of the Man in Black. As a fan of Cash, I have seen him live, and seen clips of him when he was younger. Phoenix appears to have carefully studied Cash’s most intricate facial mannerisms, his walk, his speech patterns. I also applaud the cosmetic team’s styling of his hair, clothes, and body into a character I never could have guessed would so remarkably resemble the legend himself.
The camera work in this film depends on a lot of close-ups that give it a melodramatic aura. It’s difficult to say whether that’s bad in general. Cash was a man who struggled with his demons, stirring emotions in his music and persona. A film about Cash would be lacking if it did not include some of the powerful melodrama that was in fact his life. Close-up shots also invite viewer identification with the hero.
Interestingly, these shots and the access to Cash’s personal life humanize him, even explode his traditional masculine persona. He is often portrayed as weak, lacking confidence from early childhood to the film’s end.
But the melodramatic devices are captive to a kind of Hollywood love story. The choice to focus on Cash’s early life is highly reductive and typical of Hollywood screen formulas. In this story, two major forces seem to propel Cash: a love quest for June Carter, the starlet of royal country ilk, and an Oedipal drive to conquer his father. Both are located in his early life. In a sense, this narrative choice makes the film a narrow psychological study.
Cash is marked by his humble, cotton-picking origins, a harsh father, a close and protective older brother, and his passion for early country on the radio, where his love for June Carter begins. The early loss of his brother leaves Cash forever struggling with the trauma of losing his best friend and paternal love. The hardworking but emotionally icy father is resentful that God took his eldest and “best son.” “You took the wrong son,” he cries in a poignant scene that forever marks young Johnny’s future. A refrain that runs through the film is “You look like you’re goin’ to a funeral.” And Cash’s response, “Maybe I am,” is traced to this original event: his brother’s death/funeral. Cash is forever going to his brother’s funeral.
The other major force propelling Cash’s life is his love for June Carter. As children, he and his brother hear the girl’s beautiful voice as she sings on the radio with her famous family. There the seed of love is planted. Much of the rest of the film suggests Cash’s aimless mistakes in career and marriage are a hapless wandering until he finds his fated soul mate and true love in Carter. It bears some fairytale trappings; when Cash gets the girl his problems appear to disappear, few as they are in the film — namely, drugs, insecurity, and Oedipal hate towards his father. In Hollywood, apparently, all you need is love.
Different viewers will have other objections to this portrayal. Historical material of a docudrama always invites comparisons to “the real thing” and accusations of infidelity to the real. While Cash is hardly portrayed as an angel, his first wife is pictured as a one-dimensional 1950s housewife, desiring all the dreamy accoutrements of upward mobility. After weakly opposing Cash’s dream to live by the sweat of his guitar, she figures out that what she really wants is a family man and the attention that any kind of healthy spouse deserves. The story may not encourage complete sympathy with Cash in his family relations, but as hero of the film, his familial misdemeanours are easily overlooked and his first wife is transformed into a shrewish, jealous bore. June Carter, on the other hand, is portrayed as a strong woman, caring yet determined, and able to reconcile her own choices with the judgments of others.
Reducing Cash’s life to these two major forces, father and love, can be seen as the cost of generic constraints on mass-circulated films with big stars and budgets. Here one should return to Cash’s “Man in Black” lyrics, written in 1971. Cash was not a Lee Greenwood; his was a different kind of country music, not easily appropriated by the Republican noise machine. Cash did only brief stints in jail, yet he did have drug and other problems, and identified with those who had transgressed and been punished or who had the misfortune of growing up in cotton fields and without the resources many take for granted. The film ends in 1968, and we get an on-screen line that reduces the final 35 years of Cash’s life to a footnote: “June and Johnny lived happily ever after.” Ah, the pleasure of fairy tale closure. Is that all there was to the Man in Black? No, but that’s all this narrative has time for. What would Johnny say?