First of all, I need to state the obvious. A long time ago I was I was a rock columnist in a mainstream newspaper, and you only have to do that job for, oh, a week or so to learn that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times is one of the giants. So that is a given.
I also realize that Hilburn’s recent feature story about Joaquin Phoenix was a story about the young actor and his craft. But this story was also about the actor’s attempts to submerge himself into the larger-then-life persona of the late Johnny Cash while filming the Oscar-hot movie Walk the Line.
Hilburn — who actually attended the legendary Cash concert in Folsom Prison — knows he is dealing with material soaked in faith, sin, grace and redemption. At least, I think he does.
But he ended up writing a story that talks about how Phoenix looked into the soul of the country-rock-folk-gospel legend, but never gets around to telling us much about what he saw in there. He says that Phoenix was having trouble shaking loose from some parts of Cash’s story and personality, now that the movie is done. OK, that’s interesting. Like what?
There is even hint that the actor’s own background may have a religion ghost or two in it. For example:
“I’m into exploring characters, exploring the human condition,” he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. “I’m into psychoanalyzing people. I think it’s something I grew up around.”
He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early ’80s.
“In the early days, we were definitely poor,” he says. “We didn’t have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don’t recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up.”
Now one rarely sees words like “missionary” and “hippie” in the same sentence, but the story of the Children of God — church, cult, movement, all of the above — includes many plot twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Joaquin Phoenix comes from interesting stock. It would have been nice to see Hilburn explore that issue.
Cash, of course, was a famous sinner as well as an evangelist, a man always aware of the blackness of his own heart. This is a key element in his life and legend.
Does Walk the Line explore this side of Cash? How did Phoenix wrestle with those lively angels and demons? It turns out that the iconoclastic Christian T-Bone Burnett helped the actor learn how to handle the musical side of this difficult role. Did they talk about the role that faith played in Cash’s life and music?
Hilburn is a great writer. Maybe he’ll get around to the Holy Ghost side of the story of Cash and Phoenix in another article. Frankly, I have no clue how he avoided it.