Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency!
Naturally, in a film as rife with emotion as director James Mangold's Walk the Line someone's bound to have some sort of facial reaction. From the early childhood days with his loving brother, and anything-but-loving father (Robert Patrick's Ray Cash) to the days of his first marriage (to Ginnifer Goodwin's Vivian Cash) and his struggling musical career to his massive success and pursuit of the lovely June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), Walk the Line covers John "JR" Cash's life in a way that goes a step beyond the average biopic.
It also pulls few punches in its depiction of its subject as not quite the shining hero of the story that fans of the Man in Black might want to think of him as. The drugs, the extramarital sex, the drinking, swearing, debauchery... it'll take about seven hundred listenings to Cash's version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to remind one of his ultra-Christian faith after some of these moments. However, none of this is a vicious indictment of Cash, the man, seeing as how Mangold's screenplay (with Gill Dennis) is culled from two Autobiographies by Johnny himself: The Man in Black and Cash: An Autobiography (the latter penned with Patrick Carr). It can be gritty, nasty, violent, mean, ugly and occasionally touching too. It's not an easy, one-note movie, mostly because Johnny Cash wasn't an easy, one-note man either.
Primarily, though, Walk the Line is a showcase for the considerable acting skills of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Johnny and June light up every stage they're on and Joaquin and Reese light up the screen in turn. The comedy and joy seen in front of the crowd (even when Johnny's singing one of his more "dark" numbers) is balanced only by the uncomfortable drama off stage. This is no joyless and depressing biography either. While there is no question that Walk The Line can be bleak and sad, there is a lot of hope and triumph here, culminating in Cash's now-legendary concert At Folsom Prison!
I say that this is primarily a showcase for the acting found here, mainly because the script, while overall pretty solid, wanes in a few critical areas. For example, not much attention is paid to June and Johnny's Christian faith, which is noteworthy only because it was stated by both of them that this was a major part of this story. While Mangold never ignores this at all, it's clear that these parts of the story are cafeteria-chosen and outshined to appeal to a broader audience (Johnny Cash's line about his motivation behind the Folsom show is a noteworthy exception). Further, there is a lot of sentimentality and gloss here, skipping over entire lakes of time to focus only on the "cool" things (be they positive or negative). This leads to a moment or two of incoherence (brief though they are). Finally, when all is said and done, this is a very, very good film, and in that respect its hard not to want quite a bit more once the credits roll. To twist that into a positive, it sure does make one want to read about and listen to Johnny Cash to a greater extent to fill in any blanks we might need filled. Since the movie premiered there has been a large Cash advance online. Although Johnny Cash has been a popular musician for decades, Cash has continued to advance in popularity with the younger generations that had not grown up in the forefront of his uprising. The movie sees into his life, his real problems, successes, accomplishments and demons that people, young and old, feel compassion to.
It goes without saying that another great focus in this film is (thankfully), the Music. Cash has always been that man who bridged the gap between Rock and Country, appealing to the Punk movement, the Country kids, the Rockers, and all kinds of others out there. Johnny Cash sounds incredible here, and entire songs are left intact for the listening pleasure of the audience. What makes this all the more notable, however, is that Phoenix and Witherspoon do not merely lip sync to the recordings of the singers they are playing. This is really Phoenix's voice! This is really Witherspoon's voice! There are subtle differences, but the key word here is "SUBTLE"! Fox spent the money to have T-Bone Burnett coach these two in their singing impressions of Cash and Carter, but the fact that both were talented enough to pull this huge task off shows that the real Johnny Cash and the real June Carter-Cash had the right idea when they hand-picked the actors who would play them. Fans of the music of this era (this focuses primarily on the Sun Records days of 1955 to 1958) might be pleased to (and hear) Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice) record producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) and Waylon Jennings (played by his son Shooter Jennings).
Four Stars out of Five for the somewhat flawed, but excellently acted, great-sounding and well done Walk The Line! It should be a treat for fans of Cash (and I am one), and it should be enticing for those who simply want to see a good film with great acting therein. But don't take it from me... let's see what your uncle Oscar has to say about it. Me? I'll be dressed in black with my Raybans on, my sunburst hummingbird acoustic guitar in my lap, and a sneer on my upper lip. Thanks for your time, kids, I'll see you in the next reel! I want you to always be good boys and girls, don't ever play with guns!
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