Daily Archives: March 26, 2006

Watching Elvis in 'Walk the Line'

Although I’ve been only a modest Johnny Cash fan over the years, I am fully aware of his talent and immense contribution to American music.  So, his bio-pic “Walk The Line” was a must-see when it came out on DVD.  This is one movie you don’t want to miss.  Joaquin Phoenix did a superb job portraying Johnny Cash.  He was at least as good as Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar playing June Carter.


Because the careers of Elvis and Johnny Cash overlapped for a short while at Sun Records, I knew Elvis would have to be in the movie.  He was – in four different scenes — but I’m not totally happy with the way Elvis was portrayed.


The scene first occurred in 1954 when Cash was a struggling door-to-door salesman in Memphis.  He walked around a corner onto Union St. and saw two fellows unload an upright bass from their car and carry it across the street and into a small storefront.  Any Elvis fan would identify the young men as Elvis and Bill Black.  Cash looked in the window and could faintly hear music.  He walked around back, and through an open door he heard Elvis and Bill and Scotty playing “Milk Cow Blues.”  Soon Johnny Cash is back at Sun studios doing an audition for Sam Phillips.


Elvis’ next scene is at a concert in Texarkana, Texas in 1955.  Almost the whole gang from Sun Records was on the bill:  Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.  This would have been a terrific show had it really occurred, but it never happened.  Jerry Lee’ history at Sun Records didn’t start until late 1956, and Roy Orbison came along after him.  This instance of playing loose with the truth should have sent me a warning that something worse was coming.


However, the actor playing Elvis has four lines of dialog in this scene, including “Sounded good tonight, Cash – real tight,” and “Want some chilli-fries?”  Elvis also makes two complimentary comments about June Carter, but parts of them were too mumbled to distinguish, even with repeated listens.


The movie jumps to a scene in a car, part of a tour caravan through Texas in 1956.  Johnny and June and Jerry Lee mention they are going to Tyler and that they had just played Austin.  Soon they stop in Calvert, Texas for the night, and all the fellows, including Elvis, hang around outside drinking beer.  One fellow has a baggie of something in his hand, and asks Cash if he wants some.  When Cash asks what is it, the fellow tells him, “It'll just make you want to drive all the way to Jacksonville — and enjoy yourself when you get there.”


Then comes the part that really bothers me.  The fellow tells Cash, “Elvis takes 'em,” and with that validation Cash agrees to try some.  The implication is that Johnny Cash’s downward spiral with amphetamines started because of Elvis.  This is a low blow.  Sure, Elvis had his problems with prescription drugs in the latter part of his life, but none of the references I’ve checked cite any use in 1956.  The earliest noted use of amphetamines by Elvis is as a soldier in Germany to stay awake during all-night maneuvers.  It just bugs me that the people behind the movie took such liberties with Elvis.


The last scene with Elvis in it is at a concert in Texarkana, Texas, later in 1956.  This time we get to see Elvis perform.  However, part way through the song, the camera shifts to backstage action by Johnny Cash.  While Cash has his first dalliances with groupies, we hear Elvis singing “That’s All Right.”  Is that a coincidence, or is the movie giving subliminal validation by Elvis for more bad behavior? 


It spite of these quibbles, I thought “Walk The Line” was a wonderful movie with superb acting.  At its core it is a love story with a happy ending.  Without June Carter, we would have lost Johnny Cash a lot earlier and America would have missed a lot of great music.


©  2006   Philip R Arnold    www.elvisblog.net