Johnny Cash Bio-pic ‘Walk the Line’ Extended Cut

Johnny Cash Walk the Line MovieRead this review of the the recently released 2 disc set of the 2005 movie now available, with extended scenes of the film and deleted scenes, extended scenes, and a number of featurettes which gives the uninitiated a view into the element which made Cash the man he was as a musician, and as a human being too.

Joseph Campbell talked about the hero cycles of ancient myths, that every mythic tale follows the same pattern. We love to hear stories again and again because they resonate with our perceptions of the human experience. Walk the Line (Extended Cut) shows that not much has changed. We still want to hear and see stories about the heroes and titans of our time, to discover the humanity behind the legend. Recently, the movie Walk Hard proved that the music bio-pic is pretty easy to make fun of. That’s because even the most interesting tales of the lives of some of our most beloved musicians follows a pattern too. This usually involves a dreary backdrop of poverty and boredom, often in a dull small town or dangerous inner city. It often involves a depressed childhood too, or some childhood trauma that shapes the man. Then, we have the stuggles to become known, the meteoric rise to fame, the relationship difficulties, the drugs, the decent into hell (whatever form that may take), and the redemption from it. Along the way, a love story helps too.

With the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, we get all of this. And with some Hollywood intervention and stretches of the truth in places, we get a box office smash aimed at the casual music fan as well as at the casual movie goer who likes a bit of romance, tragedy, human failures and weaknesses, and the healing power of true love as well. But, if you’re looking for a portrayal that sheds light on who Cash was, as far as this film goes, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.

The real Johnny Cash stands as a paragon of musical integrity. When he sings, you believe every word, even about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. As such, Joaquin Phoenix had big boots to fill, and he doesn’t quite make it, despite his obvious talent. The impression one is left with is a man who is doing a good job of portraying Cash, but not really inhabiting him or helping to give dimension to the legend. Phoenix plays Cash as a vulnerable man-child. Phoenix’s Cash is easily led, easily hurt, and is generally weak willed. We see none of his strength, his integrity, his sense of purpose. This part of it for me was disappointing, particularly considering that the real Johnny Cash was involved in the script, working with director James Mangold.

Here’s a video except taken from one of the featurettes from the extended cut of the movie which talks about the strength of the man, the core characteristic which made him such an admirable figure among his peers:

Fortunately, Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter adds the strength of character the story requires of a hero. Carter is a woman growing up as a modern day princess in the Carter Family, the key architects in forming what is known as country music for everyone who would follow them. Again, the mythic significance here is pretty powerful, with Cash as the questing hero trying to win the heart of the princess. Yet, it’s the princess who does the saving here, not the hero who is a lost little boy ultimately looking for approval. Witherspoon rises to the challenge in a role which demonstrates her range as well as reminding us just how watchable she is. It may well be the Phoenix’s portrayal was felt to be necessary in order to add to how important June Carter was to his redemption. But, that’s a fine balance that really needed to be struck.

Walk the Line Johnny Cash movie Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin PhoenixTo me, we still needed to see that Cash was a pioneer, a mover, and someone who took risks not out of petulance or selfishness, but because he had an inner strength to do what was necessary, despite his flaws. The film suggests Cash’s redemption comes about because he was saved by love. Where this can’t entirely be sidelined – it is a compelling element to Cash’ life – making it central to the story means that Cash’s strength of character is all but absent here. Instead, he becomes a romance novel fantasy figure – the bad boy who only needs the love of a good woman to redeem him. The emphasis on his drug habit hurts the film in this regard too, much like an Elvis picture would if it concentrated on how many peanut butter and banana sandwiches the King ate. For my money, we need to see what made Cash great in spite of the drugs, and in many ways despite June Carter too.

Overall, the retelling of this story is compelling because of the romance angle. Ultimately, this is why this story was made into a movie to start with; good actors in Phoenix and Witherspoon portraying two people in love who must overcome prejudice and their own human failings to preserve that love. And there’s no denying the talent of the two leads, who also do their own singing (Witherspoon in particular is very convincing in this department…) under the tutelage of Americana go-to guy T-Bone Burnett. For this, the film is recommended. And the extras included in this edition of the DVD are outstanding.

If you want to find out who Johnny Cash is and what drove his darkly compelling and intensely believable musical voice, the extras included here shed a bit of light on the man from the point of view of some of his peers and followers. The addition of the featurettes makes this new 2 disc set a worthy purchase in an of itself. Even as a lesson in musical history, from Cash’s touring days, the history of the Carter Family and June Carter’s background, to Cash’s Folsom Prison live album, this makes for interesting and dare I say educational viewing. Even if you’re not a fan of country music, if you care about music in general, the extras here make for some pretty compelling viewing.

Norah Jones Acting Debut in My Blueberry Nights

Norah JonesTake a read of this interview with singer-songwriter Norah Jones. The article focuses on her debut lead role in the new movie by Hong Kong director Wong-Kar Wai called My Blueberry Nights. This is a debut for the director too – it’s his first movie in English. Thanks to the guys at Rotten Tomatoes who alerted me to this.

Are you dubious when musicians try to branch out into acting? Well, so is Norah apparently. Yet, for whatever reason I personally find the idea intriguing nearly every time, and I’m always optimistic. We’ll see how she does, I guess. To contrast, I tend to bristle with waves of pessimism when actors release albums.

Tell me what you think of the interview, good people. And if you’ve already seen the movie, tell me about that too.

Spinal Tap – Stonehenge

This is one of my favourite moments in rock-u-mentary history; the re-staging of the Tap’s classic prog-rock masterpiece, ‘Stonehenge’ during their 1982 American tour.

Take a look!

Spinal Tap Nigel Tufnel Spinal Tap David St. HubbinsSpinal Tap Derek Smalls

Images courtesy of Liquid Lucidity

Note the prog-rock/Led Zeppelin references which are clear targets here (especially when the mandolin comes out). When I first saw this scene, I nearly died laughing. And the dancing dwarves – you can just imagine the thinking: “maybe if we got short dancers, the set would look bigger…” That’s the genius of the film from which this clip comes, the parody rock movie This is Spinal Tap.

Because the film is about these characters more so then it is about things that happen to them, and focuses so heavily on their personalities and points of view, a lot of the gags in it are what you can imagine they might have been thinking to bring about the events you see on screen. So, the reason it’s a funny movie is not because funny things are said and done (although they are), it’s because of who is saying and doing those things.

What the clip doesn’t show you is bassist Derek Smalls’ (as played by Harry Shearer) ‘practical question”: “are we going to do Stonehenge tomorrow night?”

Blade Runner Soundtrack by Vangelis

One of my favourite movies of all-time is Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner, based on Phillp K. Dick‘s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Apart from its revolutionary art direction and skillful melding of the film noir and science fiction traditions into something entirely seemless and original, Vangelis’ score is also revolutionary, and essential to the film. To me, this is the mark of a great soundtrack, that the sounds in the film help to make the world depicted in it that much more believable.

Here’s a clip, which gives you a taste of this must-see film, along with a sampling of Vangelis‘ sumptuous score.

P.S – Deckard is not a replicant. I don’t care what the director says!

To view the clip, hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the maginifying glass icon in the top right corner. Alternatively, click on the image to view the clip in a new browser window. Enjoy!

Blade Runner

Get Carter Theme Music

Just to continue with late 60s-early 70s soundtracks, another one of my favourites is the soundtrack to 1971’s Get Carter, starring Michael Caine as the titular Carter, a London mob enforcer come to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother. In addition to the spare, yet striking soundtrack by Roy Budd, this film is one of the grimmest gangster movies you’re ever likely to see, with Carter as little more than a revenge machine, not driven by love or passion in the end, or even by anger, but just driven by an instinct to protect his family honour by seeking vengence on those who have harmed his kin.

Here’s a link of film composer Roy Budd playing the theme to the film, with some of the opening scenes included.

Note the use of the tabla along with the jazz instruments; the tabla takes the place of the drum kit, which leaves some great spaces in the overall sound. Yet, the percussion line is distinctive, insistent. That harpsichord-like instrument is a celesta; a really ghostly sound, ominous, yet delicate at the same time. And that warm, relentless bass line; magic.

The theme remains to be well-known in Britain, as is the film as a whole, with Caine’s take on the character having become established as a national icon. The groans of displeasure across the Atlantic when word of the Sylvester Stallone version hit their shores were deafening. Stallone plays him as a tough guy, not a bad guy. Caine’s take on him is decidedly amoral, a true British anti-hero; for him, “it’s a full-time job”.

Bullitt – Cars, Cops, and Cool Hipster Jazz

Bullitt Chase Scene

Here’s a couple of links to the 1968 film Bullitt, starring the impossibly cool Steve McQueen, and featuring the smooth orchestral jazz soundtrack courtesy of one Lalo Schifrin, who would create the template for chase music in films well into the next decade, including soundtracks for the Dirty Harry movies, also set in San Franciso.

The first clip is the opening titles with a great sampling of the cool soundtrack.

And also check out this clip from the same movie; the immortal chase scene that set the tone for all chase scenes to come. McQueen did all of his own driving – natch.  This is not to mention another chance to hear the soundtrack again!

Bedford Falls

Here’s one of my favourite scenes in film history, the telephone scene from Christmas seasonal favourite Frank Capra‘s It’s A Wonderful Life. Hover over the image, click ‘play’ and take a look:

Telephone Scene from It's a Wonderful Life

There is something about this scene that gets me every time – I actually get choked up when watching it. I think it’s because there’s so much going on in it; sexual tension, confusion, love, frustration, anger, and more, all playing a part in making this pack an emotional punch. Because it’s a short little moment in which all of these range of emotions are happening, it just gets me – one of the most powerful scenes in cinema history.

I think the actors Donna Reed, and particularly James Stewart, were incredibly gifted, being able to convey all of this in so short a space, which on the surface may seem insignificant. But to me, this scene incapsulates the whole movie. In the hands of lesser talent, who knows how it might have turned out? Stewart makes George Bailey come to life; a real person on the horns of a dilemma.

George Bailey is a man with a big heart, and full of love. Not just for Mary, but for everyone in the town of Bedford falls. It’s in his nature to give, to sacrifice. But, he also has a wandering spirit, driving him to free himself of all obligations, “see the world” and build grand visions for himself away from his small town roots. But his love for Mary, and ultimately for everyone around him who come to depend on him is just as undeniable as the desire for him to explore his potential outside of this little world of which he is ultimately a vital presence. It’s this tension between the two forces which drive him that make him such a watchable, and ultimately identifiable character.