LOVE IS A BURNING THING.
It’s impossible to see this film and not think of last year’s Ray. Both films tell the story of a supremely gifted, Southern musician who grew up tormented by having witnessed his beloved brother die in a grisly accident. The musician marries a woman, but gets hooked on drugs and starts cheating on his wife. There were similarities between Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and both films do a great job portraying these giants. This is essentially the story of how Cash learned to walk the line.
The story is familiar. There’s a great opening, with the Tennessee Three warming up the crowd of inmates at Folsom Prison. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the Man in Black, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s backstage, enjoying a walk down memory lane. We follow him as he grows up in rural Arkansas, first losing his older brother, then being told by his grieving, stern father that God took the wrong son. When he grows up, he marries a girl called Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), starts playing gospel music in a band and signs a contract with the legendary Sam Phillips who discovers that Cash stinks at gospel but knows how to write songs and how to perform them in a unique way. Johnny soon finds himself on the road, touring with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley (how’s that for a line-up?). That’s also where he meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) who’s touring with her family. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but they’re attracted to each other and they stay friends over the years as Johnny’s marriage is falling apart and his addiction to pills becomes a major problem.
When he finally falls into an abyss, it is June and her family who rescue him, even waving a shotgun at his drug dealer to scare him off. Back on the wagon, he saves his career by recording a successful live album at Folsom Prison; he also proposes to June during another concert. That’s the story of Cash’s life, expertly told here without any surprises. Not that any are needed; almost everything about the film works to perfection.
Perfectly embodying the Man in Black
The music is very powerful. Listening to Cash’s most famous songs being performed by Phoenix is a true pleasure; he doesn’t sound exactly like Cash, but that’s not important. This is a performance so rich it is easy to forget everything Phoenix has done prior to this film. He perfectly embodies the Man in Black and one starts caring about him, even when he’s behaving like a pig during his wild years. Witherspoon has always been good no matter how bad her vehicles have been, but she is even better here as June, the girl who was told that she needs to be funny onstage because she’s not a good-enough singer. She also does her own singing, beautifully.
Robert Patrick deserves praise as Cash senior; we don’t see enough of him in movies. The cast, the period detail, the music… these are the parts that carry this film when the script is less than challenging to our minds.
The final sequence is much weaker than the opening one at Folsom, but it’s comforting to see a talented director, James Mangold, finally make a really good movie. Also, a story where it’s possible to walk the line and still be the coolest man on earth is kind of heartwarming.
Walk the Line 2005-U.S. 136 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by James Keach, Cathy Konrad. Directed by James Mangold. Screenplay: Gill Dennis, James Mangold. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash), Reese Witherspoon (June Carter), Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Cash), Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller.
Trivia: Also available in a 153 min. cut. Shooter Jennings plays his father, Waylon Jennings.
Oscar: Best Actress (Witherspoon). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Phoenix), Actress (Witherspoon). BAFTA: Best Actress (Witherspoon), Sound.
Last word: “I talked to [Johnny Cash’s] family, his sister, his brother, obviously June and John, the manager, the rest of the band, the Tennessee 3. There are great details about all these stories. Even at the audition at Sun Records, there was a level of detail that had never been put down on paper about these things. Part of what I was doing was trying to fill in a very specific history. I mean, I read that John approved Joaquin and that, but John was much more trusting than that. It wasn’t really that he was handing his approval out and he really didn’t legally or contractually have the ability to say no to actors. John was much more trusting, once he decided to believe in the movie, he really just liked to be in the loop and know what was going on. He, of course, was a big fan of Joaquin’s.” (Mangold, MovieWeb)