Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

So, back around 2000 or so I decided I liked Johnny Cash; something or other made me listen to Live at Folsom Prison and I was just a fan from then on. I suppose this was around the time he was having his last glow of stardom, with his whole country-fried patriarch of rebel music persona going on. I was on my way to Esbjerg airport in 2003 when I heard Danish radio playing “I Walk the Line” at like eleven in the morning, and I said “huh. Johnny Cash died.”

Walk the Line (2005) isn’t a bad film at all; in fact, I quite like it. But it does something that is not only absolutely infuriating but also typical of movies about art — and, in a broader sense, typical of movies about history. Let’s take a look at a pivotal scene in the film for an example. Young John has managed to get an audition with Sun records supremo Sam Phillips. He and his band bore their way through some gospel numbers until Phillips stops them and demands that they play something they really feel: 

Sam Phillips:You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just… like… how… you… sing it.

Johnny Cash: Well you didn’t let us bring it home.

Sam Phillips:Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ *you* felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.

Johnny Cash: [after a pause] I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?

Sam Phillips: No.

Johnny Cash: I do.

So Cash gets back in the saddle and this time he plays “Folsom Prison Blues” and history is made. 

Now here’s an account of the same meeting from Cash’s autobiography: 

Once we were in the studio, I sang ‘I Was There When It Happened’ and ‘It Don’t Hurt Anymore’ for him. I sang … whatever else I’d taken into my repertoire from among the popular country songs of the day. Sam kept directing me back to my own repertoire: ‘What else have you written?’ Though I didn’t think it was any good, I told him about ‘Hey, Porter,’ and he had me sing it for him. 

That did it. ‘Come back tomorrow … and we’ll put that song down,’ he told me. 

I think that scene would be fucking amazing if they kept in that self-important horseshit speech from Sam Phillips and then at the end he played Hey Porter: 

So, OK, why does this bug me? There are several differences between this scene and the account Cash gives. Let’s list the big ones. 

  • The Tennessee Two weren’t there — Cash auditioned alone and brought his band back the next day. 
  • Cash initially tried to audition as a gospel singer (I didn’t quote that bit) but Phillips turned him down. 
  • Phillips wanted Cash to perform a song he’d written. 
  • Phillips didn’t want country or gospel music; he wanted rock and roll — or at least lively, upbeat country music that could appeal to the rock and roll market. 
  • There’s no record of Phillips giving some speech about the meaning of music, as if that weren’t obvious. 
  • Cash auditioned with a bomp-chicka-bomp train song, but not that bomp-chicka-bomp train song. 

Now, some of the changes made to the story for the film are very understandable — the sequence of events has been simplified, and the song has been replaced with a more recognisable one. Some details are even kept, like the song Cash plays in the audition, which is one of the ones he mentions in the book. 

But the rest are just … in reality, at least according to Cash’s book, Phillips was making a business and/or artistic decision. He wanted more of a certain type of country/rock artist, and he wanted songwriters. In the film, he makes a speech about self-expression, and he ties it right into the only religion Hollywood can ever take seriously: good old believing in yourself

With a few tweaks of dialogue, you could drop that Phillips speech into any movie made about music or art in Hollywood more or less ever. It has nothing to do with the set of circumstances that turned Johnny Cash into a rock star, and it has nothing to do with music more generally. In some ways, I think that’s a very bad thing for people who might want to be musicians to see — we get this idea of Johnny Cash, the lonely, tormented misfit with songs burning inside him, and we don’t see Johnny Cash talking about his music obsessions with Elvis, being immersed in the nascent rock and roll scene, hunting for hard-to-find “race records” or playing crappy gigs in nowhere church halls with his band, making his own posters, on the grind. Being a musician in movies, like being a writer, is an identity, not a process. 

Now maybe that’s fine; obviously, the process isn’t as visually or dramatically interesting. But what really gets on my nerves about this and every other film like it is that it doesn’t give a shit about the source material, or, if you like, the truth (bearing in mind that an old man’s recollections for commercial resale might not be the “truth” either, of course). It takes a thing that happened, and it replaces it with an inspiring feel-good believe-in-yourself speech. It takes reality, or something close to it, and it just … ignores it. No, not even ignores it, rejects it. Oh, this thing that really happened isn’t enough like a movie, so let’s replace it with a movie scene. This thing isn’t like what we already believe, so we’re just going to replace it with what we’ve already got. It isn’t interested in learning anything. 

If you’re just going to replace things with stock Hollywood moments, why go looking for things to begin with? If you’re just going to take real life and make it more like a movie, why the fucking fuck are you making movies based on real life in the first place?

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Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

One thought on “Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

  1. I don’t know about “Mangold the Auteur”, and might need a bit more proof that this is really a director worth paying attention to, but this is a pretty watchable film. I found the story and film-making a bit predictable, like the usual bio-pic formula that you might expect if you’ve seen, say, coal miner’s daughter, or any other bio-pic of someone you love. What makes this movie stand out is the two lead performances. Reese is unbelievably convincing as June Carter Cash. She almost disappears into the role. And her singing! Who knew???

    And Joaquin! We’ve been waiting for him to deliver a really spectacular performance for some time, and this is finally it. I, for one, resisted the idea that ANYONE could portray the man in black, but he does a pretty fine job. Not just an impersonation, but actually a performance worth watching. Really fine.

    Watch for the Jackson duet. Really awesome.

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