Actor Joaquin Phoenix, whose portrayal of Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” has made him an Oscar front-runner, returned yesterday (Jan. 2) to the scene of one of the musician’s most famous concerts: California’s Folsom State Prison.
More than 50 inmates dressed in denim shirts and pants watched the movie as the actor and others — including musician Shooter Jennings, who in the movie plays his father, Waylon Jennings — toured the facility with prison officials.
Cash’s Jan. 13, 1968, performance in the prison yard cemented his hardscrabble image and became an iconic live album. Dressed head to toe in Cash’s trademark black, Phoenix performed several acoustic songs with Jennings at the prison’s Greystone Chapel, including Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Jennings played his father’s song, “I’m a Long Way From Home.”
Phoenix apologized for his “rusty” performance, saying he had not played since the movie’s completion. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve messed up like 40 times,” Phoenix said. “I’m all over the place.”
One inmate asked Phoenix whether he had learned to play guitar for the movie. “John wasn’t [Jimi] Hendrix,” Phoenix replied. “It was real simple … We rehearsed a lot.”
Noting that co-star Reese Witherspoon, who played June Carter Cash, couldn’t make it, Phoenix said: “I know you guys would probably rather see Reese.”
The prisoners were subdued during most of the film, although there was occasional laughter and, at the end, applause. “I’ve always been a fan of Johnny Cash,” said inmate Gary Lopez, 61, who has been incarcerated 11 years for attempted murder. “I grew up in the country picking cotton … All we had was a radio. All we listened to was country music. All through the movie I had a lump in my throat.”
Warden Matthew Kramer presented Phoenix with a prison-made license plate bearing the actor’s name, and gave another to Jennings bearing the movie’s title.
The event was organized by Prison Fellowship, a group that runs Bible studies and other educational programs in prisons. Fellowship spokesman Joe Avila said the movie’s message would be good for inmates because Cash’s “whole life was a message of redemption.”
“The movie is about how he screwed it up really bad, and he turned to Jesus Christ to help him change,” Avila said.
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