Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is something fascinating about the work of director James Mangold. To look at his filmography is to be presented with the work of someone who has flitted easily between genres. Like Ron Howard, he is a director who has delivered critically acclaimed work and yet is perhaps not someone that is the first person to think of as one of the greats.
However, he has directed superb movies over the years. Making his directorial debut with Heavy in 1995, Mangold made an even bigger splash with Copland in 1997, which gave Sylvester Stallone one of his greatest ever performances. From there Mangold has worked in a plethora of genres, and in 2017 would deliver arguably the pinnacle of the comic book genre with Logan. Logan was a film that would set a benchmark for superhero cinema in a manner similar to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and prove that films with comic book characters and frequently the leads of PG-13 movies could be the centre of darker, mature stories that had more to offer than copious amounts of CGI.
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That he followed that up with Ford v Ferrari (released as Le Mans ’66 in the UK) was another indication of his malleability with genre, but if there is a constant to be found in his work it’s his ability to zero in on character regardless of the scale of the film. Whether it be superheroes or an expansive biopic set against recent American history, there is perhaps no other mainstream director working today outside of Michael Mann who can get to grips with the fragility of the masculine psyche. Unlike Mann, a fantastic filmmaker, Mangold has a warmer and more humanistic streak, almost more akin to Spielberg, which is perhaps why he is set to helm the fifth instalment of the Indiana Jones series.
Following on the heels of Ray, Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was inevitably another musical life story that held massive amounts of appeal to Academy Award voters. Even more of a draw to the awards circuit, its two stars would do their own singing on top of capturing the essence of their characters.
Cash’s life has all the hallmarks of a movie tailor-made to become awards bait: a difficult working-class life; emergence into a life of being a big music star; issues with substance abuse; and a complicated personal life. Cash himself was one of the most fascinating music stars, whose work straddled the line between country and western with a grittier style of rock, with lyrics that were filled with grit and personal observations of life, and who channelled into his songs a powerful sense of the personal.
His ability to make anything he sang feel like it was coming from a deep place within made his performances uniquely his own, even when in the latter stages of his life and career he would work on cover versions that still felt like they were one hundred per cent his. His rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ may very well be one of the greatest performances in the history of music, made even more so by Cash’s deeply personal rendition of the lyrics that felt as if they had been written for him.
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Walk the Line doesn’t cover the entirety of Cash’s life. Instead, the film focuses on the first half of his life story, finding an emotional centre in his relationship with June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon in an Academy Award-winning performance. Like Ray, there is a distinct lack of sugar-coating of its subjects, but then you’d get the feeling that Cash wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. His most famous performances were not in concert venues but in prisons. While he himself didn’t do hard prison time (the film depicts his arrest for smuggling painkillers and his brief incarceration), he found himself sympatico with the prison community, tapping into a darker part of his soul that stemmed from an early life that was defined by the death of his brother and subsequent difficult relationship with his father (Robert Patrick, excellent as always) that struggled to shift gears for a long time afterwards.
It’s the type of film and performance tailor-made for Joaquin Phoenix. Up until this point, Phoenix was already amassing a reputation for committed performances but wasn’t just as notorious for his devotion to method acting as he would be later on, with his work on Joker and Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here.
With intense work already on Gladiator, To Die For, and his collaborations with James Grey, Phoenix’s acting style harked back to a type that put one in mind of New Hollywood method greats such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. It perhaps made him a great choice of lead actor for a project directed by Mangold, who had worked with De Niro and Harvey Keitel on Copland and who would go on to work with the other modern proponent of the method Christian Bale on his remake of 3:10 to Yuma.
Walk the Line isn’t some glossy biopic about music, performing and finding love. There is a real emphasis on the emotional ugliness that can come from being defined by music and the type of gritty performer that Cash was famous for. The film builds towards June Carter accepting Cash’s marriage proposal, but similarly to Ray and Coal Miner’s Daughter, Mangold and Gill Dennis’s screenplay never shies away from the more emotional ugly side of the man himself. Prior to meeting Carter, Cash was already married, and the dissolution of his marriage to Vivian Liberto (Gennifer Goodwin) is documented and never shied away from.
You get the impression Cash wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, and Phoenix captures the more complex factors of the singer that is the complete opposite of a glossy, sanitised performance. A scene where he loses his temper in his dressing room and breaks apart a bathroom sink is powerfully done, but more so because it feels so real, raw and totally unscripted. Even his singing is great. He doesn’t match Cash completely, but he has the drawl and the essence in a way that feels none more Cash. It might have been easy to strip away anything too difficult about the subject matter, but the film never takes the easy way out. The same goes for his relationship with Carter. She tries her best to walk away at every opportunity but has to be essentially told by her parents that her life is connected to Johnny’s, despite her protestations, in a subtle moment where Witherspoon says so much with so little.
Witherspoon was already shaping up to be one of Hollywood’s best actresses and it says a lot that she got the Oscar for her work here, but Phoenix lost out. While she became a star on the back of Legally Blonde (it’s great), it’s sometimes easy to forget that she had starred in the darker likes of Freeway and Cruel Intentions before making it big as a rom-com star for a while. If anything, the likes of this, Wild and her television work on Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere are more indicative of just how expansive her range is and there has always been more to her than the deservedly iconic Elle Woods.
While it doesn’t go into the latter stages of their lives, the film does find its balance and sense of a happy ending with June accepting Johnny’s proposal and the singer finding solace and forgiveness with his father. For a singer famous for ‘Ring of Fire’ and extolling about (fictionally) shooting someone in Reno just to watch them die as if such a thing had really happened to him, it’s a bittersweet note of hope and optimism to end on, and amazingly it strikes exactly the right tone.