Walk the Line comes on the heels of several recent movies (Ray, De-Lovely, Beyond the Sea) about important figures in the music world. The subject this time is Johnny Cash and, like the Man in Black himself, the film’s approach is not entirely conventional. At first, it appears as though it will be. We see Cash as a boy, shouldering the blame for a table saw accident that claims his brother’s life. His father (Robert Patrick) is particularly distraught, even going so far as to say that the “wrong son” died.
As a young adult, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) enlists in the military, marries a woman named Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), has a child, and ultimately moves to Memphis. He starts fiddling around with his guitar, practicing gospel numbers with the help of some buddies. They find their way to Sun Records, where legendary owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) urges him to sing something more personal. Cash pulls out a song he wrote while serving overseas and makes a record. He later goes on tour, performing on the same bill as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. It is during this time that he first begins popping pills as well.
The movie gets all this conventional stuff out of the way early. Although director/co-writer James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl Interrupted) is certainly interested in those biographical career details, he also knows that the story he really wants to tell is the love story between Johnny Cash and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). When they first meet while touring together, a friendship is formed. It quickly becomes clear, though, that there’s a special spark between them. Johnny makes some subtle (and not-so-subtle) advances that the pragmatic June rebuffs. She knows that Cash is married and prone to getting himself into trouble. When her own marriage falls apart, she becomes even more intent on trying to do right by herself.
One of the things captured so beautifully by Walk the Line is the way Cash and Carter had chemistry together. When they performed on stage, they lit each other up. There is a great moment here where they sing “It Ain’t Me Babe.” To the audience, it looks like great showmanship, but we recognize it as genuine flirtation. Whatever attraction they repress off-stage comes out in their performance. As time goes by, Vivian leaves Johnny, and June’s second marriage also ends. They finally begin a relationship, although it is not without its problems. June has trouble dealing with Johnny’s now-raging drug dependency. He seems hell-bent on self-destruction. Johnny also seeks the forgiveness and approval of his father, who has become one of those tough-as-nails types who thinks the world should play by his rules. At his lowest point, June helps him kick the drug habit and reinvest himself in his songs. She stands by him when few others will, and he finds inspiration in her fundamental decency. It would be all too easy for a guy like Johnny Cash to spiral endlessly downward; June makes him want to hang on and pull himself back up.
Johnny Cash was famous for a certain quality in his songs. I hesitate to call it pessimism because that isn’t quite right. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that he had an empathy with the downtrodden. More than once he sang about prison. Although he himself never spent time in one, the film suggests that he felt imprisoned by many of the events in his life: the death of a brother, a rejecting father, an arrest for drug smuggling, an unhappy marriage. The man lived a tough life that inspired tough songs.
Joaquin Phoenix does a brilliant job channeling all the anger, sorrow, and passion that was Johnny Cash. He perfectly captures the essence of the Man in Black, who always seemed like he had been around the block a few times and was both proud and amazed to have survived. The actor does all his own singing (as does Witherspoon) with extraordinarily convincing results. Phoenix is so good that it becomes easy to get totally absorbed by the story. This is a rich, 3-dimensional portrait of a complex man with whom the world is familiar.
It’s interesting to watch the dynamic between Phoenix’s Cash and Witherspoon’s Carter. The actress (who, like her co-star, delivers Oscar-caliber work) provides a nice balance. In the movie, June is practical and careful. Whereas Johnny can be like a bull in a china shop emotionally, June is more reserved. She makes her share of mistakes and feels moderately disappointed in herself for them; that feeling is what drives her to keep from making them again.
These two characters – who seem like polar opposites on the surface – come together to create a great American love story. June Carter was Johnny Cash’s inspiration. She made him want to be a better man. She made him persevere when all his demons were rising to the surface. She made him believe he was good enough. By the same token, he was loyal and true to her, no matter what. Whereas she may have beaten herself up for her shortcomings, Johnny let her know how special she was. This relationship is the heart and soul of Walk the Line, and the performances from Phoenix and Witherspoon make you feel you feel the love.
The movie ends in the late 60’s, with a newly sober Johnny recording a live album at Folsom Prison and proposing to June shortly afterward. My knowledge of the real Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash is admittedly limited. I mean, everyone knows them publicly. Everyone can identify “Ring of Fire” and the title tune, among others. But I didn’t know much about their real lives. I have no doubt that, like all movie biographies, Walk the Line condenses facts, leaves things out, and hypothesizes about things that went on in private. That said, the film made me aware that Johnny and June loved each other as much as two people can. Their love was redemptive in ways that could not have been foreseen. Great music contains a certain kind of magic because it makes you feel your emotions even more strongly. Walk the Line is a deeply moving film about a powerful love that yielded some extraordinarily emotional music.
( 1/2 out of four)
Walk the Line is rated PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.
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