Saturday, 19 July 2008

walk the line

Watched Walk the Line last night. A biographical film about Johnny Cash and June Carter, it covers Cash’s life up until his marriage to June and in many ways it is a straightforward love story. Excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon (who won an Oscar for her performance) as Carter and a superb soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett. Much to appreciate including the singing of Phoenix and Witherspoon who re-recorded material rather than attempting to lip sync their performances to the original songs.

There is a powerful account of Cash’s childhood. As a young boy Cash’s brother was the one who knew his Bible and was hoping to become a minister while Cash was good at singing the old hymns he had learnt from his mother. When his brother dies in a tragic accident Cash is told by his father that God had taken the wrong son. This haunts Cash throughout the film as does the tension between his religious roots and the music business. There is a fascinating scene when Cash and his backing band audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Cash sings the gospel song I Was There When it Happened but is stopped by Phillips who tells him to sing a song he really feels. Beginning slowly and uncertainly Cash starts to sing Folsom Prison Blues and then as his confidence grows so the pace quickens until it reaches the familiar tempo of the record. It is on the strength of this performance that Cash and his band are given a recording contract. (I was interested to discover that a couple of years later Cash did record I Was There When it Happened and eventually left Phillips’ label because he wanted to record more gospel material.)

Throughout the film there is recognition of the debt that Cash and his contemporaries including Presley, Lee Lewis and others owe to their religious roots. There is also a frank portrayal of the effects that drug addiction had on Cash’s personality, relationships and music and the part that June Carter played in his recovery.

On her new album, All I Intended to Be, Emmylou Harris sings How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower about the Carter family and it was this song that she performed with Buddy Miller on Later With Jools Holland earlier this year.


Anonymous said...

Emmylou sings about the relationship of AP&Sarah Carter ,members of the original Carter Family.Third member was Maybelle Carter mother of June Carter-Cash.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for this correction. I've just tracked down an interview with Emmylou in which she says the following about the song.

Perhaps the pivotal song on All I Intended To Be is the sad How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower, inspired by a TV programme on The Carter Family who, with the likes of “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, founded modern country music.

It told the story of A.P. Carter and his wife Sara, how they got recognition in the harsh economic climate of the late Twenties and early Thirties, how she fell in love with another man but was kept apart from him, her letters to him intercepted.

“Then one night, the family were on the radio in Texas, broadcasting all over the country,” says Emmylou, picking up the story. “And Sara did a dedication to her lover by name, ‘I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes.’ The man got in his car and drove all night. They were united and never left each other.

“They were married until his death but she continued to work in The Carter Family.”