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Cash movie walks the line

By Brian Baker, November 2005

Any filmmaker who chooses to condense the colorful life and adventurous times of a larger-than-life historical figure into the cramped confines of a two-hour movie is begging for a thorough caning from film critics and historians alike if the project is botched.

Surely that must have occurred to director James Mangold over the past half decade as he desperately attempted to wrestle the irresistible love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter into "Walk the Line."

And it was a daunting task; the very intimate story of the blossoming passion of the first couple of country music was played out against the expansive backdrop of the turbulent '60s, the rapidly changing profile of country music as a cultural phenomenon and Cash's own self-destructive renegade reputation.

Through it all, Mangold's vision for making the movie version of Cash and Carter's incredibly moving romance remained true. He collaborated with Cash and Carter at the very end of their lives to secure the necessary details to make the eventual film of their love affair even more compelling.

Early word on the moving starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who trained diligently to do all their own singing and performing) has been positive.

Mangold deserves much of the credit for the critical success of "Walk the Line," if only for the intuitive sense of casting that he employed to populate his film.

Mangold hired a number of musical talents to portray a host of Cash and Carter's family and most famous contemporaries, including Shelby Lynne as Cash's mother Carrie, Goober & the Peas/Blanche guitarist/singer Dan John Miller as Cash's guitarist Luther Perkins, country rocker Shooter Jennings as his father Waylon Jennings and singer/songwriter Waylon Payne in a brief but potent star turn as Jerry Lee Lewis.

For Jennings, the fun was in allowing the spirits of our collective musical past to inhabit their physical bodies and to experience some of the wildness of his father's youth without the obvious repercussions. Almost.

"It was one of the best times I'll ever remember and can't remember, all at the same time," says Jennings with a laugh from his tour stop in Shreveport, La. "It was nuts. Most everybody was musicians and singers, and we all have our own little demons. So, we're crazy anyway. And we're all just totally getting into it."

Revisiting his father's era through his father's eyes was a revelation for Jennings as well, especially when he realized just how deeply the party ethic was ingrained into that generation.

"I'm only in two scenes in the movie - it's more of a cameo than anything - but I do get to sing a song," says Jennings. "It was just wild. I remember being scared, but I was having such a good time with Joaquin and Waylon Payne and all the dudes in the movie. We had a blast."

Jennings has a natural connection to the film industry; he lived and worked in Los Angeles for several years, and his girlfriend is former "Sopranos" and current 'Joey" star Drea DeMatteo.

For Dan John Miller, the path to "Walk the Line" was slightly more circuitous.

The Blanche front man and Detroit native has a couple of indie acting gigs on his resume and mentioned the fact to producer T Bone Burnett when he was in L.A. Burnett passed the information along to the casting director, who contacted Miller while Blanche was in Austin for South by Southwest and asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a part.

"She'd heard I'd done some acting and played guitar, and they were trying to get a guitar player for this Johnny Cash movie, which I had never heard that they were making," says Miller from his Detroit home. "I sent them a tape of me singing a Johnny Cash song, and they liked that, and they had me come out and audition. It was really a great experience."

After a few weeks of rehearsal in L.A., the production moved to Memphis for shooting. Miller spent around two months filming his role as Luther Perkins (Miller's wife and band mate Tracee Mae makes a brief appearance as Perkins' wife Birdie) before heading out on a late summer tour with Blanche.

Shelby Lynne's experience was slightly different than a lot of her male counterparts. She spent far less time carousing in her off-set down time, opting to recharge from the daily shoot at her Memphis hotel and sequestering herself from the often rowdy off camera periods.

"For me, being a first timer, I kind of liked being tucked away and not doing anything that didn't have anything to do with me," says Lynne from her California home. "I liked to stay in the feel of the time and the character and stay shut away from everyone else."

Still, Lynne's film debut as Cash's mother Carrie was clearly an exhilarating experience for the country soul singer, whose heart-rending ballad "Johnny Met June" is a highlight of her latest album, "Suit Yourself."

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