IT has been 50 years to the month since Johnny Cash recorded a live album at Folsom Prison.
In electric form in front of a raucous audience of prisoners, this live performance gave Cash’s faltering career a new lease of life. It also marked a turning point in the country singer’s personal life amid a tough battle with substance abuse.
The importance of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to the mythology of the singer is underlined by the fact the live performance acts as the bookends for James Mangold’s 2005 biopic Walk the Line. A well-received film in which Joaquin Phoenix portrays the ‘Man in Black’ and Reese Witherspoon plays the love of his life June Carter.
But Mangold’s film was not the only time Cash’s weighty presence has been felt – or evoked – on the big-screen. 60s filmmakers tried to tap into the Tennessee-born musican’s star power and rugged outdoorsman persona for films such as Five Minutes to Live (1961) and Road to Nashville (1967).
Cash’s cinema run was largely forgettable, although it did end on a minor high in 1971 when he starred alongside Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight (1971). In truth, things never clicked for Cash as a big-screen performer. The decade instead belonged to the more prolific and better-packaged Elvis Presley.
Cash may not have been tailored for big-screen acting (although he did enjoy marked success on the television), but his songs would soon become a popular choice for filmmakers.
In 1981, director Peter Bogdanovich featured three Cash songs on his detective film They All Laughed. The film, starring Audrey Hepburn, would be the start of an on-screen love affair between Bogdanovich and Cash’s music. One that would see the director feature Cash’s gravelly voice on another three films – Illegally Yours (1988), Texasville (1990) and The Thing Called Love (1993).
In that time, Bogdanovich’s love of Cash would only be rivalled by fast-rising independent filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.
He used Cash’s I Walk the Line in his 1987 film My Best Friend’s Birthday – not to be confused with PJ Hogan’s 1997 rom-com. The song plays in the background of a bar scene as Tarantino’s character Clarence flirts with a young woman (Crystal Shaw Martell) who later turns out to be a call girl. Tarantino even spells out his love for Cash within the scene as his character openly compliments the woman’s taste in music.
Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004) and Django Unchained (2012) would follow suit as Tarantino matched his unruly, violent stories with Cash’s commanding moralist lyrics.
The filmmaker gave fascinating insight into his appreciation for the singer when he wrote liner notes, along with U2’s Bono, for Cash’s album Love, Death and Murder (2000). Understandably, Tarantino featured in the ‘Murder’ section of the album, comparing Cash’s music to gangster rap and praising the humanity of his songs.
Following the tastes of Bogdanovich and Tarantino, Cash’s music appeared frequently in films throughout the 90s – in particular his hit 1956 song I Walk the Line.
Among the films to feature it was Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997). I Walk the Line plays on a diner jukebox as Toby (Joaquin Phoenix) and Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) almost come to blows over a woman. Cash’s morally ambivalent song underpins the scene brilliantly as Bobby continues to ‘walk the line’ by trying to steal from the diner cash register.
The incredibly moving music Cash made in the final years of his life under the watch of legendary producer Rick Rubin would be picked up by many filmmakers in the 2000s.
Cash’s voice would lend authority to the opening sequences of Flight of the Phoenix (2004) and horror flick Dawn of the Dead (2004). In the latter, Zack Synder uses the gravitas of Cash’s song When the Man Comes Around during a montage of the world crumbling under a zombie outbreak.
The command of Cash’s voice is used to similar effect at start of Killing Them Softly (2012) as hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) wades around like a modern-day cowboy to the sounds of When the Man Comes Around.
More recently, the same song played during the credits of neo-noir western Logan (2017). Directed by Walk the Line’s James Mangold, it seems fitting that he return to Cash’s music to mark the final moments of one of comic-book movies’ most beloved outlaw characters.
Johnny Cash’s music can bring so much to a scene. Not only is his voice one of the most spine-tingling in American music history, but it also comes attached with the story of the man himself.
An imperfect yet truly inspirational figure. One that came from the cotton fields to become a music legend. An outlaw and a man of the people (at least in intention). A true American hero.