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A Hollywood salute to Cash

October 27, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

LIKE his friend Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis has measured the dark side of life, which adds shadows to his voice when he sings something like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." On Tuesday night, there was even more poignancy when Lewis sang that grand old spiritual because he did so in tribute to Cash.

The only problem was that, a few bars into the song, Lewis was awkwardly cut off so that movie stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon could come on stage, smile into the television camera and properly introduce the singer. Lewis looked a bit bewildered for a moment but then gamely relaunched the song.

That strange mix of rigid Hollywood infomercial and compelling musical moment is a fairly common concoction these days. On Tuesday night the stage was the Pantages Theatre, and the event, which was taped for a national CBS telecast, was billed as a tribute to Cash. But its undeniable reason for existence was to promote the film "Walk the Line," which stars Phoenix as the tempestuous Man in Black and Witherspoon as his fiery bride, June Carter Cash.

The same approach was used for "Ray," which arrived in theaters with an extra goose from an all-star music show that served to introduce Jamie Foxx to the folks at home. That was an apparent model for Tuesday's "Walk the Line" event, but this special might feel like a rerun to some viewers. There was a splendid and emotional tribute to the Cash couple in November 2003 -- both died that year -- that, unlike this event, featured their families as well as country icons Willie Nelson and George Jones.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"Jackson" -- An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section about a Johnny Cash tribute concert quoted a lyric in the song "Jackson" as "hotter than a pepper tree." The line is "hotter than a pepper sprout."

The tribute-as-trailer will air on CBS on Nov. 16, two days before "Walk the Line" arrives in theaters. If you want to see the film early, just watch the show -- if the broadcast holds true to the taping, there will be a clip from the film every few minutes.

This is not to say that the event was impure. Cash's music career was so lengthy and so potent that it's easy to forget he also was a television star, most notably with "The Johnny Cash Show," the ambitious variety show that aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That slick series was an important bridge between country music and the wider pop audience, so Cash may well have approved of the notion and approach of Tuesday night.

There also was some strong music. The event was highlighted by Norah Jones singing "Home of the Blues," a lesser-known tune that Cash recorded in 1957 while still at Sun Records, and the gossamer voice of Alison Krauss singing the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower." Kris Kristofferson, meanwhile, does not have a clinically wonderful voice, but his craggy performance with Krauss of "If I Were a Carpenter" -- the Tim Hardin song that Cash and Carter once recorded as a duet -- had the earnestness and efficiency of an old hickory rocking chair.

Phoenix, who already has stirred raves for his channeling of Cash on screen, is often described as a maverick who resists the Hollywood machine. Maybe so, but Tuesday night he was the enthusiastic pitchman for the project and jumped on stage and played guitar during Jones' performance. He learned to play guitar for the role, and the lessons were worthwhile -- he acquitted himself well among the pros.

Some of the stagings were a bit curious. The duet performance of "Jackson" by the mother-son team of Jessi Colter and Shooter Jennings (who plays his father, Waylon, in "Walk the Line") was technically fine -- but who wants to be "hotter than a pepper tree" with his mom? Crossover guests such as the Foo Fighters (whose performance was one of several taped earlier) and Kid Rock also were ideas that may have worked better on paper than on stage.

Kristofferson's comments about his friend constituted the lone emotional flicker in the otherwise business-like show. He recounted briefly the role Cash played in his career and life. Kristofferson was one of the few people on stage who actually knew Cash. The sentiments he expressed brought to mind one of Cash's most melancholy classics: "I Still Miss Someone."

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