Arts and Culture

Johnny Cash: The five most memorable portrayals of the man in black

"Hello. I'm Johnny Cash." That was enough of an introduction for the country legend himself, but Cash's legacy has surpassed that simplicity. In his nearly fifty-year career, Cash played himself in dozens of film and television spots, but his death in 2003 opened the gates for others to take up the reins of his name on their flesh, on the stage and on the big screen. (Only two years later, a Golden Globe was dispensed for one attempt.) This month, Denver is home to two such tributes.

While Ring of Fire plays at the Stage Theatre through May 13, staff at the Jones Theater around the corner will channel the Music Hall of Famer with Square of Ice, a send-up of the larger play that parodies musical reality shows like American Idol. Through a battle of the bands, performers will reinterpret the man named John through comedy, poetry, the ukulele and the theremin, among other methods. As you attempt to imagine what 'Folsom Prison Blues" sounds like on the theremin, take a look at our countdown of the top five portrayals of the man in black -- present company excluded.

5. Million Dollar Quartet It just makes sense that Cash's life should become a musical, but the addition of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins makes that decision impossible to turn down. Launched in Florida in 2006, Million Dollar Quartet underwent several regional transitions before making it to Broadway in 2010 (Cash is now being played by Derek Keeling) and London's West End last year. Through the performance, audiences are invited to relive the night of December 4, 1956, when the four recorded an unplanned (but now legendary) jam session at Sun Record Studios in Memphis. Highly influenced by the role of label head Sam Phillips, the musical relies on its roots, foregoing weighty dialogue to fit in more than twenty rock classics performed by the actors themselves. 4. I Still Miss Someone Although the performance is now impossible to find in full, country singer Mark Collie took an early turn as one of the leaders of his genre with the short film I Still Miss Someone. Predominantly black and white, the 1998 tribute targets Cash's darkest days (and with the title, his most sorrowful lyrics), funneling his story through his discontent as Cash drinks and self-medicates onscreen. Co-written by Collie, the film ends with Cash making contact with his deceased older brother. There plot comes with few shades of gray: The man in black is painted in black. 3. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story Two years after Walk the Line, producers Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan tackled both the singer's life and the biopic genre in general with this screwball John C. Reilly vehicle. Its plot borrows heavily from Cash's history, combining his memories with one-liners and obvious fiction to take on a range of legends that also include Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Dylan, among others. Nothing is sacred here: In lieu of Walk the Line's gentle portrayal of Cash's involvement in his brother's death, Cox splits his brother in half with a machete. Re-purposed as a lovable if occasionally unlistenable cliché, Dewey Cox becomes a mild-mannered mime in an overtly laugh-grabbing tribute. 2. Branson Named after the small Missouri city, this documentary follows three wannabe stars chasing their ambitions in the Show-Me State. Of these, the most arresting story is that of Cash look-alike, sound-a-like and name-a-like whose struggles are traced as he hustles to make a living from someone else's life. First seen in a Walmart food court, Jackson Cash proves to be a sad and insightful portrayal of both the famous singer and the world of professional impersonation in which he lives. At once painfully self-aware and completely oblivious of his unhealthy ties to his idol, the recovering addict's career devolves into drugs and alcohol. The line between idle worship and idolatry has never been finer. 1. Walk the Line Although Cash's daughter Kathy was reported to have walked out of it five times, there is no stronger portrayal of the legend than this 2005 biopic. Based on excerpts from Cash's autobiographies, Walk the Line earned star Joaquin Phoenix more than ten nominations for Best Actor internationally and a Golden Globe win strong enough to overshadow even his faux rap career and that scene where his assistant shits in his mouth in I'm Still Here. A blunt and defiant portrayal of Cash's Arkansas upbringing, romance with June Carter and ascent to country music stardom, Walk the Line's two-plus hours of drama prove bigger-than-life, if not bigger than legend.

Is your favorite not on this list? Let us know below, and in the meantime, read about Ring of Fire and Square of Ice.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple