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Walk the Line Vs. Ray: Battle of the Oscar-Bait Music Biopics


The people behind Ray were pretty smart. Here’s what they figured out: if they made an Oscar-bait biopic about a musician rather than a president or an author or whatever, the movie would then be able to compete in the Musical & Comedy division of the Golden Globes rather than the Drama division. Since nobody likes giving awards to actual comedies, they’d be a lot more likely to win a few major awards, which would mean they’d be more likely, in turn, to win Oscars. And if they won Oscars, then the movie would make more money than the average biopic, and HBO would show it every damn day for months. That logic turned out to be pretty sound, and it didn’t hurt that Ray was actually a pretty great movie that deserved to win all the awards it did. Ray set the precedent, and last night Walk the Line did it a couple better, winning every Golden Globe in the Musical & Comedy division (Best Picture, Actor, and Actress), and establishing itself as the movie to beat for the Best Picture Oscar. Whether it wins or not, we’ll probably see a whole lot of copycat musician-biopics in the next few years, as just about every star who ever battled demons will become fair game. Mary J. Blige has already announced that she’s about to play Nina Simone. If Idlewild turns out to be any good, Andre Benjamin will probably get to do that Hendrix movie he’s wanted to make for years. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Randy Rhodes, Eazy-E, Kurt Cobain (Last Days doesn’t count), the Blind Melon guy. Don’t be too shocked if the next ten years bring us Hurley from Lost playing Big Pun.

I wrote some nasty things last week about music award shows, especially the new breed of indie awards (Plug, New Pantheon) but also the Grammies. Movie awards may be just as arbitrary and meaningless as music awards, but I follow them a lot more closely, possibly because I don’t care about movies as much as I do about music (if that makes sense), but also because an Oscar generally has a much larger impact on the success of a movie than a Grammy does on an album. You don’t often see albums made specifically with the intent of winning Grammies (unless I’m being naive), but you see it all the time with movies. And Walk the Line, which I finally got around to seeing this afternoon, is absolutely an Oscar movie. Even if the film was made before Ray came out, it still registers as a work made from a preexisting blueprint, from the ecstatic mythmaking music-creation scenes to the cold-sweat rolling-around addiction scenes to the eventual redemption. And even if Johnny Cash is a dearer artist to me than Ray Charles ever was, Ray ended up a much better movie, and not just because it had the advantage of coming first.

Walk the Line was still pretty good, mostly because the music scenes are amazing. It doesn’t much matter whether Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were actually singing and playing the songs or just doing a good job of convincing us they were, but nearly every music scene carries a chill, from Cash’s furiously determined Sun Records audition to the unhinged Folsom Prison performance of “Cocaine Blues.” The movie doesn’t skimp on these scenes either, at least until the endless addiction-and-recovery stretch between kicking out the Opry footlights and taking the Folsom stage. The problem is everything else; the non-singing scenes never really register beyond weird little curiosities like the little kid Cash looking really weird and the liquid-metal Terminator playing Cash’s father.

The problem, of course, is the addiction stuff. Biopics can’t encapsulate an entire life in under three hours, and actual lives don’t come in neat building-to-climax structures or come with ready-made villains, but the conventions of the form demand a central conflict, so of course we get the artist vs. the demon of addiction. (Just watch: Hurley will play Big Pun as a helpless food addict.) Ray fell into the same trap, and that movie also slowed to a crawl when it dealt with the addiction scenes. We’ve seen the scenes over and over somebody spirals downward and curses out his family and wakes up in weird places and goes to jail and finally learns to accept the help of the people who really love him and slowly learns to re-embrace life. It’s boring, and it doesn’t make for good entertainment. If the movie had changed its focus a little bit, the villain could’ve been the ostrich who attacked Cash and sliced his belly open, which led him to start taking pills again. We could’ve had shots of the ostrich brooding in the moonlight, eyes glowing red, plotting his attack while ominous music plays. It might not have won any awards, but it would’ve been worth watching.

Voice review: J. Hoberman on Walk the Line

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