First, some background for Johnny Cash neophytes. Credited with writing more than 1,000 songs during his career, Johnny Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. He's considered a influential figure in country, rock, blues, folk, gospel and alternative country. Johnny Cash was known for his distinctive voice (more than competently sung by Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line) his penchant for wearing black clothes (thus "the man in black" moniker) when country stars were wearing traditional western-influenced clothing, and less superficially, a restless, confrontational, socially charged approach to writing memorable lyrics and performance. He was, and is still, considered one of the original rebel figures to have emerged from Memphis, Tennessee and Sun Records, the music label that, at one time or another, handled Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison (all of whom make cameo appearances in Walk the Line).
Walk the Line opens with a series of episodes from Johnny Cash's life, beginning with his impoverished childhood in 1940s Arkansas, a childhood worsened by a violence-prone father and a family tragedy. From there, Walk the Line flashes forward to Cash's military service (he was a radioman in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Germany in the early 1950s), to his first marriage to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), to his first recording with Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Sun Records, commercial success, constant touring, strains on his marriage, and his growing friendship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a singer/songwriter who began performing at the age of ten with her family. When they meet for the first time, Johnny and June are immediately attracted to one another, but June is also married, the mother of two young children.
June's marriage, and Johnny's intransigence toward resolving his difficulties or differences with his own wife (if, in fact, they can be resolved), proves to be both an impediment to their eventual reunion and the impetus for driving the storyline forward. Given the social and cultural constraints (i.e., the widespread opprobrium both would face if they left their respective spouses and married each other), as well as their own internalized ideals about fidelity, leads, or we're led to believe, to Johnny Cash's downward spiral into drug and alcohol addiction, with amphetamines as Johnny's drug of choice. His drug addiction contributes to the deterioration of his marriage to Vivian, even as he looks to June for emotional and spiritual salvation. If he gets there, it's certainly not before Walk the Line traces Johnny's near ruination of his personal life and professional career. And, yes that also means an extended sequence with Johnny going through the rigors of detoxification.
Unfortunately, Walk the Line never strays from the typical "rise-fall-redemption" narrative common to Hollywood biopics (drugs, alcohol addiction, or mental disease almost always play a part in the “fall” aspect of the narrative). The familiar makes for a certain predictability, plot wise, changing the focus from what happens to how it happens, and the emotional truths the characters find for themselves. Life is far messier and unstructured than the standard Hollywood formula allows (complexities, complications, reversals, drawbacks can be either compressed to fit the formula or eliminated altogether). Much, probably too much, is made of Johnny's childhood trauma, his father's unforgiving, uncaring nature, and the effects both have on Johnny Cash's long-term emotional problems and his drug-fuelled downward spiral during the hedonistic 1960s.
The success of Walk the Line turns on several factors, verisimilitude (i.e., closeness to reality), authenticity, performances, production values, song selection, and overall pacing. On most factors, Walk the Line succeeds, with Joaquin Phoenix's sensitive, vulnerable if limited (by the material, not his talent), portrayal of Johnny Cash, probably the best of his career, and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter brings her usual intelligence, energy. and nuance to the role. Phoenix and Witherspoon's performances extend beyond imitation, however, with both actually singing (as opposing to lip-syncing) the Cash's songbook, which might disappoint some fans eager to hear the “real” Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Most of the songs are meant to reflect either Johnny's experiences, as he channels observations of the poor and marginalized into his lyrics, or tales of loss or heartbreak connected to his unresolved relationship with June. It's the energized performances of the songs, with Johnny and June engaging in a prolonged courting ritual that “sells” Walk the Line and makes it worth recommending.
Two more points are worth mentioning. First, Walk the Line'spacing flags in the second half, especially as the scenes depicting Johnny's drug problems become repetitive (they're ameliorated somewhat by June's “tough love” approach to Johnny during this period). Second, Johnny Cash fans intimately acquainted with his life story might take issue with the changes or liberties Mangold and his co-screenwriter, Gil Dennis took to create a coherent throughline for this particular period in Johnny Cash's life (not to mention that Walk the Line ends in 1968, leaving more than three decades unaccounted for, with only a title card noting how long Johnny Carter and June Carter Cash remained together and when they passed on). In fact, one of Johnny Cash's daughters with his first wife, Vivian, has already publicly expressed her dissatisfaction with her mother's portrayal, specifically the reason or reasons for the end of the marriage. Vivian nonetheless emerges as a sympathetic figure, and for that Mangold and Dennis should be commended.
© Mel Valentin, 18th November, 2005
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