starring: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon
When Johnny Cash died in September of 2003, America lost the man who represented -- perhaps more than any other artist, past or present -- the true, enigmatic spirit of the country itself. He was an angel in black, a sinner who became a saint to millions, a performer who used traditional forms to blaze a new path in popular music; a modest southern boy who busted with bravado onstage, and who was, ultimately, a vessel for our collective dreams. So, it's not surprising that Cash's life should get shiny, big-budget, Oscar-friendly, celebrity-bio treatment with Walk the Line, a new offering from Twentieth Century Fox starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. But what is surprising is how damn good it is.
Director and co-writer James Mangold wisely chose to focus the film on the (roughly) 10 year period between Cash's fateful audition for Sam Philips at Sun Records (who had, at that time, just signed Jerry Lee Louis and a young man named Elvis Presley) and his long-awaited engagement to soul mate June Carter, who is played with heartbreaking radiance by Reese Witherspoon. In between, we get Cash's lean years touring for Sun Records with fellow super-stars-in-the-making Elvis and Jerry Lee, the emergence of the classic Johnny Cash sound (Cash fans will love the moment when young John's not-yet-trademarked greeting, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," is met with silence from a dubious crowd), energetic, gutsy renditions of some of Cash's biggest hits, the inevitable struggles with chemical dependencies, stardom, a rocky home life, and, above all, a love story that is compelling, moving and joyful. The whole story, told in flashback, is book-ended by Cash's legendary 1968 concert at Folsom Prison and Mangold gets good metaphorical mileage out of footage of stone walls that can't contain the locomotive bass line inside and from a crow - another man in black - that lands suddenly in the frame, scavenging in an ashcan.
Joaquin Phoenix makes a mesmerizing Johnny Cash. He doesn't look that much like him (we can never forget the scar, for one thing), or sound that much like him (Phoenix's Cash has a soft drawl that sometimes threatens to disappear altogether), but none of that matters. Phoenix isn't interested in imitating Cash so much as he is in trying to capture the man's essence. And the result is completely captivating. Phoenix is electrifying, brooding, charming, vunerable and absolutely convincing. When Cash auditions for Sam Philips, it's also as though Phoenix is auditioning for us, the audience. And we're skeptical; is this guy going to sing Folsom Prison Blues? He begins timidly and we're not sure we're going to buy it, but he gains confidence and finds his voice, not a exact replica of Cash's pipes but something all his own, and he commits to it and dares us not to come along. Before going to the film, I had heard a clip of Phoenix singing Cocaine Blues on the radio and scoffed. Nobody but Cash can do Cash, I thought. But under the spell of Phoenix's performance, well, I was converted.
About the singing: you've probably heard by now that Phoenix and Witherspoon do all their own singing in the film. Apparently, they trained for six months with music producer T. Bone Burnett before shooting, and that work has paid off. Both actors sound great and - more importantly - completely alive behind the microphone. In many films about musicians, the musical scenes seem wooden and obligatory, but Walk the Line gets a huge shot of adrenaline whenever depicting Johnny or June singing, or singing together. In one scene, performing their version of Dylan's It Ain't Me, Babe, their joy for the music and for each other is so palpable and so infectious that I laughed out loud.
But the heart of this picture isn't the music; it's the love story. Witherspoon's June Carter is charismatic but pragmatic, a cock-eyed optimist whose cheery disposition struggles gamely against a weariness that's a result of a lonely life spent on the road. Like Cash's, June's own marriage is starting to crack under the strain of her vagabond lifestyle, but she was born into the music business (literally) and she quickly becomes a mentor figure for the new kid. The two actors have more chemistry between them than I've seen in an on-screen romance in a long time. They are simply electric together. And it's not all sonnets and roses, either. June spends much of the film irritated with John; she's disgusted with his drug use, put-off by his advances, and holds him at arm's length for years. It's not a typical Hollywood courtship, and it's not a typical Hollywood anti-courtship either, where the two combatants realize, in a moment of simultaneous epiphany: Hey, I don't hate you, I love you! The film reveals a more subtle relationship that develops between the two. It's a long, patient chronicle of coming together and pulling away, like the taming of a feral dog, and it very successfully shows why June was the woman who John often credited with saving his life, and why when she died, he followed her just four short months later.
However, their tumultuous love affair is also the source of one the film's more regrettable moments: we get a crying June, driving and apparently struck with inspiration, softly trying lyrics to what we immediately recognize as Ring of Fire, the song she famously penned about falling in love with Cash. I don't know why rock and roll biopics insist on injecting these heavy-handed, cringe-worthy reproductions of artistic creation into their stories. Artists, like everybody else, usually finish the argument and the emotional breakdown before they go back to work. Mangold doesn't trust the song to stand on its own, or the audience to know where it's coming from, which is a shame. When he does, such as the concert scenes when we can see June and John falling in love with each other as they perform, it's exhilarating.
Walk the Line suffers from some of the usual clichés of this particular genre, including lifelong guilt over the death of an angelic sibling, drug addiction, drug withdrawal, a snarling father who just doesn't understand (Robert Patrick, in a shrug-inducing turn as alcoholic Arkansas sharecropper Ray Cash that made me wonder why Chris Cooper wasn't available), and a shrewish wife at home with the kids (Ginnifer Goodwin in a thankless, two-dimensional role). But Walk the Line succeeds in spite of all that. And it occurs to me now that it's possible I'm describing not the clichés of the genre but rather the clichés of rock and roll celebrity, and as such, perhaps they come with the territory, like wizards in fantasy movies.
Comparisons to Ray will be unavoidable, but while Ray was a complete pumpkin of a screenplay that got dressed up like a fancy carriage to take Jamie Foxx's virtuoso Ray Charles impression to the Oscar Ball, Walk the Line provides an enthusiastic and thoughtful interpretation of the artist - and his music - that looks long enough at a certain period of his life to give us more than a Polaroid. It's a loving tribute to John and June that doffs a cap to their great love and it's anchored by two wonderful performances. Cash fans will find plenty of Easter eggs to congratulate themselves about (John opens a fan letter from a prisoner named Glen Shirley) and everyone else (who the hell are you and what are you doing in my country?) will enjoy a well-told rags to riches yarn and come away with a new appreciation for the one and only John R. Cash, the Man in Black, country music icon, rock and roll star, gospel legend, and the original gangster rapper, who shot a man in Reno just do watch him die before Dr. Dre was even born.