Okay folks, like last time, this gets very long, since I’m re-writing the whole damn movie. (And yes, I admit that I’ve compressed and slid around some real-world events, as all bio-pics do.) (By the way, this is a pretty good example of the 30-beat beatsheet I mentioned before. You’ll see what I mean when I say that a beat can include more than one scene, but each beat is one “event”.)
First of all, I’d change the title to The Man in Black:
- Cash and his band, in matching black outfits, warm up by playing profane songs, before their big try-out at Sun Records. Cash reminds them that they’ll have clean up their act for audition, he’d be embarrassed for anyone to hear him play that stuff.
- They play their gospel stuff for Sam Phillips. Phillips tells them gospel doesn’t sell: “Go home and sin, then come back with a hit.” They stop him from walking away by playing a down and dirty song in their rollicking, sinister style. He loves it and signs them immediately, but, in passing, he jokes that they should add some color to their outfits. Johnny says he’ll see what he can do. (This anecdote was cleaned up in the actual movie)
- He goes home to tell his resentful wife, who is not at all happy for him. He promises her that this will make everything better for them in the long run.
- He quickly breaks with Sam Phillips, who wants to push him in a more rock-n-roll direction. Instead, he pokes (good-natured) fun at longhaired rock and rollers in his act:
Then he announces that he’s switching to a bigger label, Columbia, that has promised to finally let him put out a gospel album.
- A few years later, he’s strung out on pills and miserable while touring with the Carter family (still wearing black). He complains to his friend June Carter that Columbia still hasn’t let him record a gospel album.
- At a meeting with Columbia, they finally agree to a gospel album, then tell him he looks like hell and he should go home to his wife. He tells them that he can’t, he’s got to leave right away for another show in another city.
- That night, he’s served with divorce papers. He goes to call his wife to beg her to reconcile, but he stops himself. Instead he goes to June’s trailer and tells her he’s free now. She is drawn to him but she says it wouldn’t be right… yet. He says he’ll wait.
- The gospel album doesn’t sell, and his label blames his divorce for alienating the Christian audience he wants. He complains that staying in a bad marriage isn’t what Christianity is all about. They scoff and ask what does being a Christian mean to him anyway, if not family values? He doesn’t have an answer…
- June sees how distressed he is and tells him to re-read the bible for answers. He does and realizes that half of the Jesus’s ministry was about mercy towards prisoners.
- He meets with a warden before a prison show, who instructs him to only sing morally enriching songs. He reluctantly agrees.
- On stage, they start out with a gospel number, and the audience listens respectively. Disappointed with the response, Johnny holds a hasty huddle with the band. They play Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…”) and the crowd goes wild. The warden tries to shut them down, but the prisoners threaten to riot and the warden backs down and lets him finish. Johnny then plays a mournful song about a regretful prisoner, and the crowd, now that they’re on his side, is very moved...
- He brings June along to duet at a series of prisons and other venues with the song “Jackson” (“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout…”), finally he impulsively proposes for real onstage one night. The band wonders what took them so long. They get married that night.
- His prison albums come out and he is heavily criticized for having too good of a time with the prisoners. But then he meets a big fan, Merle Haggard, who was an inmate at one of his first prison shows, where he was inspired to clean up his life and become a country singer himself. Cash feels vindicated and helps Haggard with his career.
- Haggard scores an unexpected hit with a jokey song called “Okie From Muscogee”, which becomes an unlikely anthem for Nixon-loving middle America. Haggard’s label wants him to follow up with non-ironic right-wing songs, and he asks Johnny if he should. Though Johnny disdains some of the songs they want Haggard to perform, he tell his friend to do whatever will help his family the most. Haggard thanks him and decides to record the songs.
- But soon Columbia is unhappy with Johnny as a result. Other country stars are now getting huge crowds in Middle America, putting on rhinestone outfits and singing angry anti-hippy anthems. He still dresses like an undertaker and sings in prisons. He always said he wanted a Christian audience, but now that they’re showing up in droves for more conservative singers, he’s shunning them. Johnny says preachers dress in black and Jesus ministered to prisoners, so if that’s not Christian enough for them, he doesn’t know what to do. He storms out…
- Meanwhile, at home, he sees his new marriage is starting to fail under the same strain as his first one did from his constant touring…
- He decides to start his own TV variety show so that he can get off the road. He pitches it as a show where he’ll bring on all the greats of country music, including Haggard, and other favorite musicians as well. His reps love it. They feel like he’s finally playing ball.
- But on opening night, everyone is furious that he’s invited Bob Dylan, who reached out to him, to be on the program. He stands his ground, and that night Bob is hesitantly introduced to middle America. The audience is uncertain, but Johnny loves the music. Bob enjoys himself but tells Johnny that he hopes he knows what he’s doing…
- Johnny continues to discover and feature more long-hair musicians, along with the country greats, on his show, causing the network and his label to get angrier and angrier. They play him some recent pro-Vietnam country hits and demand that he record something like that or they’ll drop him. He supports the war, he supposes, but he discovers that he can’t write or sing anything like that without sounding inauthentic. June tells him that he should go play for the troops over there and find out what they’re really going through.
- In Vietnam, Johnny is shocked to find that the troops are frequently long-hairs themselves who prefer Dylan to Haggard. He’s also shocked to see how disastrous the war really is.
- That night their camp is unexpectedly shelled and he and June are hustled into an improvised bunker, where they pray with the soldiers, expecting to die any second. June finally tells Johnny he should take some of his pills to sleep through the night. He realizes that he forgot to bring any pills—he hasn’t been taking them much since he started the show. She’s glad to hear it.
- He comes back and writes his Vietnam song, but the song ends pointedly with a demand that the war end and the boys come home. He plays it on his show, infuriating the network.
- Calls are made to hastily cancel the show.
- Johnny finds out the show is cancelled but he doesn’t care. He feels that his burdens are finally lifted now that he’s not trying to please everyone else anymore. He suddenly gets inspiration to write a song that’s been building in him for sometime.
- On his final show, he plays his new song “Man in Black,” “You ask me why I always dress in black? Why you never see bright colors on my back? And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone? Well there’s a reason for the things that I got on…” He sings about how he’ll keep wearing black to protest the injustices against prisoners, soldiers, hippies and all the oppressed people in America. His audience, which is now mostly young people, loves it. Backstage, his label drops him. He points out that he’d already sent in his contract termination notice. He heads home with June, who couldn’t be prouder of him.
- On the way home, his adrenaline rush starts to fade and with a wary laugh he asks June what on Earth are they going to do now? She says that for the first time she’s sure that they’re going to make out alright somehow.
- Ending titles explain that Johhny had to battle his pill addiction and his recording labels off and on for the rest of his life, but he never stopped finding new audiences for his outlaw version of the gospel.