Can’t shake these Cash, Diamond days


Can’t shake these Cash, Diamond days

By PETE BLAND of the Tribune’s staff
Published Thursday, November 17, 2005

As Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond leap back to the front of our musical consciousnesses this month with the biopic “Walk the Line” and the album “12 Songs,” respectively, the gushing has commenced.

There’s a reason these guys are icons, and both projects remind us of their best attributes.

Cash’s power was in his “Man in Black” persona, the mythology of which only will be enhanced by the movie featuring Joaquin Phoenix that opens nationwide tomorrow.

Diamond, meanwhile, achieved his greatest fame during his elongated kitschy-pop phase in the 1970s, but it’s his early Brill Building-era songwriting that endures. He returns to that stripped-down man-and-guitar sound – which generated such Diamond gems as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “I’m a Believer,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Shilo,” etc. – on “12 Songs” thanks to producer Rick Rubin, who shepherded Cash through a similar stage of career re-enlightenment in the ’90s.

Still, when it comes to Cash and Diamond, it’s a couple of maybe average-at-best – but somewhat cheesily grand – efforts that are burned indelibly into my mind. Perhaps having Cash’s story splashed across the big screen has me focusing on theatrical endeavors, but I can’t escape these lasting images.

For me, a little part of Cash will always be connected to Frank James, the older of the infamous bank-, train- and coach-robbing brother duo from Missouri.

Attempting to capitalize on the success of the outlaw country movement, Cash and his cohorts – including Kris Kristofferson as Jesse James and Willie Nelson, June Carter Cash and David Allan Coe in other roles – combined to create the 1986 television film “The Last Days of Frank & Jesse James.”

Along with “The Long Riders” – Walter Hill’s 1980 version of the James Gang’s exploits that starred four sets of brothers – “The Last Days” creates the most memorable history-as-entertainment take on the engrossing saga.

Brad Pitt et al. might change that with next year’s feature on the subject, but Sam Shepard – who’s definitely got the chops – will have some work to do to knock Cash’s well-read family man from the top of the heap.

And then there’s Diamond in the 1980 update of “The Jazz Singer.”

This is where the gevinas Yisroel really starts flowing – as you can imagine, Neil’s no Al Jolson – but Diamond delivers a performance that’s difficult to forget.

Playing off of Laurence Olivier – oh, Sir Laurence, what are you doing here? – as his cantor father, Diamond exudes ’70s schlock as he attempts to “act” his way through the role of what is supposed to be a much younger man trying to decide between the music business and family/Judaism.

After you pick your jaw up off the floor following the scene with Diamond in blackface – this is one of the few ways the filmmakers chose to be faithful to the original? – you’ll understand what you’re in for the rest of the way.

Regardless of the quality, the sequined, cowboyed-up, chest-hair-exposed Diamond will stick with you long after “The Jazz Singer” comes to a close. There’s something about his presence that you won’t be able to shake. And the soundtrack, despite being birthed during Diamond’s sketchy period of glitz and glam, really ain’t half-bad.

A special 25th anniversary edition of “The Jazz Singer” was released on DVD in October. Your best bet might be to forgo it altogether and instead visit Diamond’s MySpace page at www.myspace.com/neildiamond, where as of yesterday you could still stream the new album in its entirety.

If you do, however, take a flier on the film, you, too, might never look at the man the same way again.

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Reach Pete Bland at (573) 815-1782 or pbland@tribmail.com.

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