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Walk the Line (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 November 2005
“Walk the Line,” the biography of the late Johnny Cash, makes an excellent match with “Ray,” last year’s outstanding biography of Ray Charles. The men had similar childhoods, growing up near the poverty level in the south, losing a brother to a tragic accident, getting started in the music business about the same time, going through drug problems and finally getting things together again, reaching triumphant heights.

The similarity of the stories is hardly a coincidence, nor do the films represent the first time the stories of entertainers have followed these trajectories. Many of our major singing stars went through this kind of thing, including Helen Morgan and Billie Holiday. It’s because of their fame and because they overcame (or didn’t) similar problems that their stories are turned into movies. Often, as here, into very good movies.

It opens with Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) about to appear on stage at Folsom prison; he’s alone—the band is vamping—brooding over a table saw and a glass of water. The story flashes back to his childhood; he loves to listen to 10-year-old June Carter, of the famous Carter Family, performing on the radio. His older brother Jack is engrossed in the Bible, already preparing for his planned career as a preacher. But Jack dies in a horrible accident (involving a table saw), and Johnny’s father, Ray (Robert Patrick), never very fond of “J.R.”, thinks the wrong son died.

In the Air Force in Germany, Johnny is impressed by the movie “Inside Folsom Prison,” and painstakingly writes “Folsom Prison Blues.” He also keeps in touch with his girlfriend Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) back in Tennessee. Out of the service, he works—unsuccessfully—as a door-to-door salesman (the movie doesn’t point out the coincidence of Cash later starring in a movie called “Door-to-Door Maniac”), but he’s drawn to the back door of Sun Records, where he’s very impressed by the young Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton). He and two friends who play guitar and bass try out for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), head of Sun, but he’s uninterested in their earnest but familiar gospel song. He asks Johnny if he has anything else, and Cash shyly tries out “Folsom
Prison Blues”—and gets a contract.

His wife is pleased, though she thinks he could find better ways of earning money. He starts touring, often appearing with Elvis and with Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne). He finally meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) in person; he’s hesitant and shy, as they’re both married. The tours continuing, increasing tensions with his wife as their family grows. He’s drawn more and more to June, especially after she divorces her husband, but she’s all too aware of his status as a married man.
The drugs kick in about here, and so does the boozing and womanizing. Tours like this are very grueling, and the temptations are many; Johnny is building a fan following, mostly of young women, it seems, who are all too eager to turn up in his dressing room. Vivian’s anger grows.

Gradually, Johnny and June are drawn to one another, as Johnny seems on the verge of becoming a rock star. Which is one of the film’s missteps: yes, Cash almost did become a rock star—but the movie doesn’t show why he didn’t, and why he turned increasingly to country-western music, where he would find his true home and major fame. It’s the difference between his first hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry” and more country-focused songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” (written trying to explain his own feelings about June).

The film does suggest why Johnny adopted his “man in black” image, but doesn’t explain why he seemed more of an outlaw to his fans than did Elvis, Jerry Lee or his other contemporaries. There was something different about Johnny Cash, but the movie has other things on its mind than parsing out the question of his uniqueness. This is not a bad thing; the movie is engrossing throughout (though a little long), and tells its somewhat familiar story very well.

But the movie stands or falls with the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon—and it stands tall and proud. Both of them are excellent, and both do all their own singing. Phoenix’s voice seemed to me to be about half an octave higher than Cash’s deep brown voice, a little less ragged than Cash at his best—but his phrasing is on the mark.

Witherspoon is even better. From the moment she appears backstage in Texarkana, Witherspoon owns the screen. Her performance is dynamic, soulful, precise, detailed and highly ingratiating. June is a veteran performer and has a different attitude toward show business and what you do on stage than Johnny does. She tries to help him in this regard, and gradually begins developing an affection for him she’s initially not comfortable with. When he collapses on stage, she breaks off contact with him—but we can see that she still likes him, maybe loves him.

Cash did spend a little—very little—time in jail, which publicity for him made a lot of for a while, though Cash never did. He makes a joke how he’s not really all THAT qualified to sing to an audience of prisoners.

The movie is largely a love story—and we’re lucky that it ended so well. They were married for 35 years, and died just a few months apart. We don’t need to be shown how Cash handled fame after they finally joined together; we can see it all in his face in the last shot, as he looks at June.

One of the frustrations for music fans in these biopics is that only rarely do songs get performed all the way through. It was true of “Ray,” and it’s true here, too. “Jackson,” one of Cash & Carter’s biggest hits, is cut in two, the last part heard first, the first part heard later (in a scene that looks like sheer Hollywood contrivance, but is actually what happened). Cash was partly about his songs, so we should have heard a few more of them, or at least all of one or two. But there are snippets of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby,” “It’s All Right, Mama,” and Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” done with June.

James Mangold’s direction is sincere, and the script he co-wrote with Gil Dennis is solidly, though not imaginatively, structured with good dialogue. They worked from two autobiographies by Cash, so presumably ithe movie is reasonably accurate. The depictions of Elvis and Jerry Lee ring especially true, with Elvis being the good boy with outlaw streaks, and Jerry Lee the bad boy with nice-guy touches. The period—the early 50s to the mid-60s—is well evoked with a lot of great old cars on display.

There are some shortcomings; none of Cash’s backup group, which remains pretty much the same, are identified. The credits tell us Roy Orbison is depicted, but he’s not identified either. Reese Witherspoon’s makeup in the post-Las Vegas scenes looks peculiarly amateurish. It seems unlikely that in real life, Johnny would have compared himself so often to his brother Jack, or that his father would be quite so unyielding in his scorn for his successful son.

This is one of those movies that Hollywood makes intending to get award nominations. And they usually do; this will not be an exception. I expect both Phoenix and (especially) Witherspoon will receive nominations from many quarters, but Robert Patrick might, too.
“Walk the Line” is a very satisfying movie, one of the best so far this year. It tells a story that, while familiar, is worth telling, and is graced with performances that honor the people being depicted.

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