Phoenix's portrayal of Cash wins Folsom praise

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The Independent US

The actor Joaquin Phoenix, who has won plaudits for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, reprised one of the country star's most notorious concerts by playing to inmates of Folsom prison.

More than 70 inmates, chosen for their good behaviour, sat and listened to the actor perform a number of Cash's hits including his best-selling song about the jail, "Folsom Prison Blues".

The correction facility's 4,000 other inmates remained behind bars.

Phoenix's gig last week was more subdued than Cash's original 1968 concert where he played to an enthusiastic, 2,000-strong crowd. Controversy still dogs the original gig, with claims that the record company added the sound of prisoners allegedly whooping with delight as Cash sang the lyrics: "I shot a man in Reno, just to hear him die". Nonetheless, the live show remains one of Cash's best-selling albums - and cemented his bad-boy, jailbird image. Ironically, the "Man in Black" never spent more than a night in the cells despite being arrested a number of times.

Dressed from head to toe in Cash's trademark colour, Phoenix humbly apologised for a rusty turn on the guitar, saying he had not played any of Cash's music since he finished filming. "I don't know if you noticed, but I've messed up like 40 times," he joked. "I'm all over the place."

The Folsom prison concert was one of the defining moments of Johnny Cash's 50-year career. By the mid 1960s, a mixture of alcoholism and drug addiction was taking its toll on the singer who risked fading into obscurity. His relationship with the country songwriter June Carter was also on the rocks.

But his concert at the prison, just outside Sacramento, California, revived his career as well as Carter and Cash's love for each other. Two months later one of the music industry's most famous couples were married and remained so for another 35 years.

The significance of Folsom for Cash was not lost on Walk the Line's director James Mangold. "The concert at Folsom was more than just a masterpiece for John, it was an incredible nexus for a whole lot of things in his life," he told Variety magazine.

The latest concert was organised by Prison Fellowship, a Christian charity for prisoners in the US, who were impressed by Johnny Cash's story of redemption. "The lesson of Johnny Cash is that it's never too late for a man to turn his life around," said a fellowship spokesman, Joe Avil. "And that's a story these men need to hear".

How inspirational last week's concert was to the inmates in one of California's most notorious prisons is hard to tell. But Phoenix's silver-screen portrayal of the singer has won praise from critics and audiences alike in the US, and he is tipped to win the best actor award at this year's Oscars.

A win for Phoenix would make it the second successive year that an Oscar has gone to an actor playing a recently deceased American singer. Jamie Foxx won Tinseltown's most coveted prize last year for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray.