Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Walk the Line
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Directed by James Mangold. Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold, based on Johnny Cash’s memoirs. Rated PG-13.
Back in Black

I shot a film in Hollywood just to watch it die, and it’s this Johnny Cash bio.


Another year, another Oscar-begging biopic of a recently deceased great musician. A friend of mine referred to Walk the Line as “the white Ray,” but it’s not even as good as that movie. All these films follow the same template: young man with a dream, first big break, fame and fortune, downfall, then either a happy ending where the hero reforms or a tragic ending where he dies young. Nobody makes movies about artists who stay happy and productive — there won’t be a Hollywood bio of Bruce Springsteen unless The Boss gets himself addicted to something and starts robbing liquor stores.

Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, and the bulk of the film tracks the country music star’s career from his first recording sessions in Memphis in 1955 to his drug bust in the mid-1960s to his historic 1968 live album in Folsom Prison. The movie’s also structured as a love story between Johnny and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a working musician since childhood who acts as a clean-living counterpoint to Johnny and his beer-guzzling, hard-partying friends as they tour together. The script by Gill Dennis and director James Mangold is based on Cash’s autobiographies and tells you what happened to the man during this time. It doesn’t tell you what was behind this fascinating musical personality, the man who wanted to sing gospel but also sang about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Mangold is smart enough to fill this 140-minute film with lots of music, but his pacing is wearily unimaginative, and he doesn’t even show us what made Cash different from the other musicians of his time. The Johnny Cash in this film is a fuzzy, indistinct character, and even the prodigiously talented Phoenix never finds a way into his mind.

This fairly tedious movie might have been downright unwatchable if not for the musical performances by the actors. They all did their own singing for the soundtrack, aided by music producer T-Bone Burnett’s flawless evocation of the period’s country sound. With his natural voice lying higher than Cash’s, Phoenix smartly doesn’t try too hard to mimic The Man in Black’s famous baritone growl. Instead, he concentrates on approaching each song on its own terms like a musician would, and the result is bracingly unselfconscious renditions of “Get Rhythm,” “Cocaine Blues,” and even “Ring of Fire.” Witherspoon, for her part, boasts a better singing voice than June Carter Cash’s, and it’s to her credit that she still nails the vibe of a singer scraping by on attitude rather than natural talent. (Her acting is best when June is onstage, a seasoned showbiz pro winning over the crowds by bantering and ad-libbing.) The supporting players add to the musical ambience as well — Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley, Waylon Malloy Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis, Shooter Jennings as his father Waylon Jennings. They make Walk the Line’s soundtrack c.d. worth a listen, but the movie they’re in is too tied to Hollywood formulas to shed much light on its subject.

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