Walking the fine line

Why actors can sing better than singers can act

Joaquin Phoenix’s solid baritone is pretty damned good, if you’ve never heard Johnny Cash. Trouble is we’ve all heard Johnny. With a range almost as long as his legs, straddling baritone and bass with ease, the man had an echo chamber in his larynx. Nobody sounds exactly like Cash.

Fortunately, the soundtrack to the recently released Cash biopic Walk the Line doesn’t try to impersonate either Cash or his wife, June Carter. Phoenix is a competent singer. As Carter, Reese Witherspoon is phenomenal; she does the best version of “Wildwood Flower” likely to come from someone who isn’t related to Mother Maybelle Carter. But neither is channeling the spirits of the dearly departed. There’s more than Mexican trumpets missing from the Cash songs on this soundtrack; what’s surprising is that it doesn’t matter.

The soundtrack works, and works well, not because Phoenix and Witherspoon mimic the singers, but because their performances elicit the heart of what it was like to watch—and listen to—Cash and Carter. The actors convey the intensity, passion and power of the music without sounding like impersonators at a Vegas show.

If it were all about the music, I’d stay home with my CD collection. The 1967 collaboration Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter covers the musical side of Cash and Carter’s relationship quite well—and pokes a bit of fun at the scandal surrounding it—as does “Temptation,” their final duet on Carter’s last album, 2003’s Wildwood Flower.

It doesn’t take a musicologist to hear the passion in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” or “Ring of Fire.” Love is a burnin’ thing; it scorches the ears and sears the heart. Who can listen to “Jackson” without hearing that heat?

What we need the movie to show us is how Cash and Carter managed to turn their passion into musical fire instead of just another celebrity car wreck. Think of the disasters: George Jones and Tammy Wynette were a great team between black eyes and broken bottles, and things got pretty bad for Sid and Nancy. Then there are all the other greats who died in the midst of their own wasted promise, from Hank Williams to Kurt Cobain. How did an insecure, angry junkie like Johnny Cash manage to turn it all around and die an old man surrounded by a loving family? It’s a question for a film, not a soundtrack. Walk the Line does a good job of answering it.

Biographical films about musicians work best when the emphasis is on acting rather than musical impersonation. Singers, who often have the ability to mimic phrasing and delivery, inevitably want to inject something of themselves into the songs. Unfortunately, it ruins the performance. Actors are more interested in presenting the essence of character; the result is sometimes uncanny.

Take Gary Busey’s phenomenal performance in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story. Busey portrayed the goofy boy-genius by capturing the essence of Holly’s unique sound rather than lingering on every phrase or note. It wasn’t mimicry; it was performance.

Contrast Busey with Marshall Crenshaw’s portrayal of Holly in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. Crenshaw’s a great musician; perhaps that’s why he couldn’t resist sounding like himself. If it weren’t for the glasses and the fact that the other characters called him “Buddy,” you’d never know who he was supposed to be.

We don’t buy soundtracks to hear imitations—even good ones—of great musicians. Why would I want to listen to Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning rendition of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” when I can have Loretta Lynn’s far more resonant performance? Jamie Foxx earned his Oscar for imitating Ray Charles, but jeez, he’s not Ray Charles. The ear always knows.

Truly good covers don’t sound just like the originals. The Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” adds to Buddy Holly’s rather than replacing it. True happiness is listening to one right after the other.

Phoenix and Witherspoon undoubtedly will receive Oscar nods—and deservedly so—but not for their singing, thank heavens. Cash and Carter left behind enough music that we don’t need to settle for imitations. See the film, but when you head to the record store, spend your money on the originals.