I haven’t been a Johnny Cash fan for very long. I’m ashamed to admit it, really, because his catalog has always been one of those holes in my CD collection that I know is there but have no idea where to start filling it in. His career began in an era where “records” were singles, not “albums,” so there are so many different collections of his work, it was too overwhelming to go out and pick one. So I only have “American III,” “American IV,” and “Live at San Quentin”—and, of course, I love them.
But after seeing “Walk the Line,” I must have much, much more, because this movie is so stunning, it must be considered one of the greatest movies about rock and roll of all time.
It all starts with Joaquin Phoenix, who spent a year and a half in vocal training to sing like Johnny Cash. Yes, he does all his own vocals and the results are unbelievable. Phoenix disappears into the character, not only through Cash’s throaty inflections in both singing and speaking voices, but also the way he holds the guitar and attacks the microphone onstage. He commandeers the same commanding presence that only a person dubbed the “Man in Black” could manage. There are times in this movie—much like Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison in 1991’s “The Doors”—that just listening to the music, it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s actually Cash. It’s a shame that Jamie Foxx won an Oscar last year for a similar role (albeit an inferior performance, compared to Phoenix), because I doubt the Academy would give back-to-back awards for a music biopic, no matter how deserving.
But as good as Phoenix is, the emotional center of “Walk the Line” is actually found in Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter, the woman who would eventually become not only the love of Cash’s life, but his path to salvation, as well. Witherspoon also does all her own singing and is equally as fabulous in this role, unarguably the best of her career. When she and Phoenix take the stage for the first time, the screen crackles with energy that sustains the rest of the way.
Everyone knows Johnny and June went on to get married and spent the second half of their lives essentially inseparable. “Walk the Line,” directed by James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”) and with a script approved by Cash himself, shows us how they got there.
It opens with John as a young boy who can’t tear himself away from the radio, much to his father’s chagrin. When tragedy strikes the family, John takes the brunt of his father’s drunken, abusive anger (played well by Robert Patrick). From there we jump ahead to John’s early adulthood, as he struggles to make ends meet with a wife (Vivian, played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and children. The first great scene in the movie comes when Johnny and his two buddies audition for label-owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), who helps Cash find his real voice and starts him on the road to superstardom.
(On a side note, "Walk the Line" also highlights pop music in its infancy, when the unbelievable lineup of Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and many more all toured on the same bill, traveling from hall to hall in a caravan of cars. In an era when you have to choose sides between "sellouts" or indie "cred," it's so refreshing to look back on an era when music was just about talented artists wanting to put their work in front of the public and entertain them. Where did it all go wrong?)
Trouble finds Johnny early and often on the road, as childhood guilt and access to fame, fortune, women, and, most importantly, drugs lead him on a self-abusive path to near-destruction. Life on tour shreds his marriage and his career, leaving June—who no matter how many times she was hurt never quit seeing the good in him—to pick up the pieces. The film’s climax is Cash’s legendary performance at Folsom Prison, which is filmed so well, you’d swear it was a documentary. This film is meant to be turned up loud.
People’s real lives don’t lend themselves to making great movies, because nobody’s story ever has an actual dramatic arc to it—especially one that can be boiled down into a couple hours. That’s why biopics are so hard to pull off—inevitably they become just a series of scenes, rather than a seamless whole (see last year’s “Ray” or “The Aviator” for proof).
But that challenge is what makes Mangold’s work here such a triumph. John and June’s story is so transcendent and the performances so brilliant, you don’t have to be a Johnny Cash fan to love this film. It’s the best thing I’ve seen this year.