At first it just seems like a pulse. Then we realize it is a sound. Then we realize it is a very loud sound, muffled because it is on the other side of some very thick walls. Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is about to perform at Folsom Prison, and the inmates are calling for him in a controlled (maybe only temporarily) thump, thump, thump. He pauses, his finger touching lightly on the buzz saw, and he remembers.
Is it possible to overcome the Behind the Music/E! True Hollywood Story-ism in a movie biograpy of a legendary musician?
Maybe somewhere out there is a story about a sensationally talented performer who managed to achieve success without neglecting family members, agonizing about the meaning of it all, and what BtM/THS always call “the descent into drugs and alcoholism.” Maybe that story will not start with a critical moment in the performer’s adult life and then shift back to take us through his childhood, with his dream of making it big, and then through his success, discovering that his dream was not all he hoped.
Someday, somewhere, but not in this movie. But for now, that’s okay. Like Ray, this is a good, if predictable movie with great performances and great music.
Joaquin Phoenix is a deep and complex actor, a good fit for the man in black. He shows us Cash’s vulnerability, his loneliness, and, above all, his aching, overwhelming, yearning for June Carter. He heard her 10-year-old voice on the radio when he was a boy and it drew and sustained him. Like Cash, Phoenix expresses himself less through his words than through gesture, movement, music. We see his anguish, his shame, and his hope of redemption in the way he walks, the way he holds his shoulders and turns his head, and especially in the way he looks at June.
Witherspoon matches him on every beat — she’s the more arresting character here, and we wish we could get to know her side of the story better. When we first see her, she’s the essence of a trouper; she’s been performing all her life. She thinks she knows her place in her famous family and in the larger family of performers: “I learned to be funny so I’d always have something to do.” She thinks tt’s her sister who has the voice; she uses charm and personality to captivate the audience. But the character she plays on stage is not really her. Johnny sees the real June just as she sees the real Johnny.
He first sees her backstage and snags her dress on his guitar, just to have the chance to be close to her. After she extricates herself, he holds onto the little piece of fabric torn from her dress and looks out at her on stage. Later, they share coffee at a diner. She tells him that his music is “strong as a train, sharp as a razor,” and encourages him to feel proud of what he has done. He tells her about the loss of his brother. They become close friends. And she stands by him as he grapples with substance abuse, finding that difficult balance between being supportive and insisting that he be clean. He helps her find her voice as she helps him find peace. Their personal, artistic, and professional lives connect and intertwine.
The movie has all the usual steps on the rise, fall, and rise story — the “Daddy’s going to be home real soon” and “I got you all this stuff — what do you want from me?” exchanges with the family, the touchstones as we see Johnny write his Folsom song and begin to wear black (because it was the only color he and his bandmates all had). Then there are the meetings with famous people before they were famous, the stardom, the discovery that stardom is not enough, and the second rise, the one that means something because it is built on something real. That’s all capably done, but it is the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon and the conviction they bring to the connection between Johnny and June, the way a deep friendship led to love and personal and artistic renewal that makes the movie work, that takes us into their burning ring of fire.
Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, the death of a child (some graphic injuries), alcohol and prescription drug abuse, smoking, and some very tense and emotional confrontations. Children witness a particularly ugly fight between parents. A character undergoes detox. There are some sexual references and non-explicit situations, including groupies and adultery.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so hard for Johnny Cash’s father to show his pride in his son. What made that so painful for Johnny? Why was the Folsom concert so important to him? If you only had time to sing one song, what would it be?
Families who enjoy this film should listen to the legendary At Folsom Prison recording, as well as recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, and, of course, Elvis. They might also enjoy learning more about the legendary Sun Records, run by Sam Phillips, and listening to the music of the Cashes and Carters, including Roseanne Cash, Carlene Carter, and the Carter Family. And they will appreciate The Prophet, the book June gave Johnny, which was a great influence and inspiration for both of them.