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11/19/05

I Walk the Line: a Night for Johnny Cash - a review...

For a couple of months, I've been looking forward to the release of the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line", which is this weekend. I'm hoping that it will approach the brilliance of last year's musical-legend-biopic "Ray", though that will be a tough order. As a tie-in with the new release, CBS aired a tribute concert on Wednesday in which various contemporary and past music stars sang a few of Cash's best-loved songs. I say "a few" because the show only aired for an hour and when you subtract time for commercials, the movie clips they previewed, and celebrities reading telepromptors, there was only time for seven or eight songs. I didn't actually count, but there weren't many.

O.k., I guess that's understandable. Network airtime is very valuable and CBS needs to sell time to advertisers and the movie studio and have goofy stars on stage so people will tune in to see what they're wearing. (By the way, I don't know what the heck Dennis Quaid was thinking. He had on a sport jacket that looked dirty, like he had just pulled it out of a dumpster in the back alley.) Overall, though, the show was a big disappointment for a few reasons.

First, the location was a poor choice. I'm not actually sure where it was staged, but it was in a large theater hall like the Oscars are held in and so the audience was a bunch of rich old people in suits sitting in seats. There was absolutely zero energy in the place--at least none that translated through the television. Sure, there was a pretty good cheer when Jerry Lee Lewis was onstage, but that's it, a pretty good cheer. The worst was when they cut away to a separate location for U2 to perform a Cash song at their concert, it totally killed a sense of flow to the concert set. (Ten years ago, I would have said that U2 was one of the 2 or 3 best bands in the world, maybe ever, but lately I get the impression from their music and performances that they know entirely too well how cool it is that they are U2. Know what I mean?) It didn't help anything that the show was pre-recorded and edited for television. The whole thing seemed very overproduced and polished, which didn't mesh well with Cash's very natural and gritty music.

Most importantly, the performances were uniformly subpar. Most of the singers/groups projected attitudes that ranged from bored to bothered that they had to be there. It started off on a bad note when some clean cut, fresh faced country music doofus sang "Folsom Prison Blues" with a goofy grin on his face. It wasn't the grin that Cash sometimes had that said "I'm a little more experienced with the dark themes in my songs than you can imagine"; it was more of a grin that said "I'm singing a song on national t.v.". Probably the worst was when Jerry Lee Lewis (he of the "pretty good cheer") and Kid Rock sang a duet version of "I Walk the Line". It was really awkward to see this old guy and young guy sing what is essentially a love song to each other (yes, they were looking at each other through most of the song)--especially since they both have terrible voices and were completely out of tune. I'd guess the idea was that both singers were/are rebels in their time, like Cash was. The idea didn't work.

The one who came closest to a decent performance was Sheryl Crow. She seemed to attempt to make the song she sang her own. And that was the key. Didn't Cash's music mean anything to the people who were part of this event? I'm sure it did, but you'd never know it. This all played out in stark contrast to the way Cash himself could take the music or song of someone else and so personalize it that he gave it life and meaning the original artist may never have been aware was possible. You can hear this in the "American" music series that Cash produced in the last year's before his death. The prime example being his version of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails. He changed that song from a decent one dealing with drug addiction, to an amazing reflection on and illustration of the despair one can experience in this fallen world when he doesn't know what lasting value his life had produced. I don't know that Trent Reznor considered the question of Jesus "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mark 8:36) when he wrote the song, but that is what comes to my mind when I hear Cash sing it.

Poorly done, CBS. Anyway, I hope (and expect) the movie tribute is better than the t.v. one.

1 comment:

W Sofield said...

Looking forward to the movie, didn't catch the TV spot. Hard to give a fitting tribute to Cash.

G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."