Walk the Line
Director: James Mangold (Kate & Leopold, Girl Interrupted, Copland)
Writer: Johnny Cash (autobiography)
           Gill Dennis & James Mangold (story)
Producer: James Keach & Cathy Konrad
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts
MPAA Rating:PG-13
read my spoiler disclaimer

     Biopics aren't normally my cup of tea; especially when involving a music personality. They are all the same. Said personality grows up in small town, raised by single parent and/or abusive parent, dreams of the day when they can unleash their talent to the world, finally comes of age and their first record is a hit, they do lots of drugs, cheat on their wife and everything goes to pot, then they redeem themselves and everything is peachy. Then they may or may not die in a tragic car/plane accident or get assassinated. Ray, La Bamba, Buddy Holly Story, The Beach Boys, Great Balls of Fire, you name it; they're all the same. Walk the Line is really no different.

      So I'll start by saying if you're not really a Johnny Cash fan, you might think this film is just more of the same; and you'd be right. BUT, I am a Cash fan and I can tell you this movie is great. The above description of the biopic stereotype fits like a glove for this film, but the acting is so well done, it has transformed my idea of two stars that I've always thought were sub-par. In fact, I didn't really care for either of them before today's viewing of "Walk the Line." Joaquin Phoenix began to emerge as an actor I liked after seeing "The Village," but he was still pretty low on my totem pole. Likewise with Reese Witherspoon. I like her films: Fear, Cruel Intentions, Election and even Legally Blonde was a very pleasant surprise. But still, she was just another girl-next-door Hollywood starlet. Her portrayal of June Carter changed all that in my mind.

      Without Witherspoon, the film fails. Her transformation into the country/folk singer is amazing. Easily one of the best performances of the year and of her career. I'll never watch the Oscars again if she's not nominated for best actress. I don't want to take anything away from Phoenix though either. His portrayal of the legendary man in black is flawless. The bass voice, the cold, piercing eyes and even his mannerisms. It's not an exact likeness, but that's okay; it really works well enough. Another Oscar nod here, and a well deserved one. They are both so near realism and perfection I can't decide which of them delivered a better performance.

      Besides the physical likeness that really is an overrated aspect of biopics anyway, is the voice overs. Phoenix and Witherspoon do all their own vocals and they are transcendent in their uncanny similarities to their real counterparts. Hats off to both of their musical performances. I'm anxious to see it again. I'd even consider purchasing the soundtrack. The second best thing about "Walk the Line" is that the filmmaker didn't forget about the music. The film is loaded with it. There are even full, uninterrupted performances of a few songs. With the loud theater speakers and DTS digital surround sound, it was candy to my ears. I caught a few people around me tapping their foot or bobbing their head to the great sounds that only Cash can deliver (or in this case, Joaquin Phoenix). And again, Witherspoon's voice is beyond great. She nails the southern drawl beautifully.

      There's no escaping the inevitable comparisons this film will draw with last year's Ray. Both follow almost exactly the same storyline and both are about music legends that have in died in the last couple of years. I couldn't put it better than James Berardinelli: "Walk the Line is a better film. It's put together with more elegance, the director has more control over the trajectory, it's not boring (Ray has a tendency to drag), and it feels more like a straightforward account instead of hero-worship. Ray did more whitewashing and fictionalization than Walk the Line. Plus, this movie has a driving plotline that Ray lacked - a love story. To me, that's what elevates this film."

      Once again I can't attest to the factualness of the events in the film. I'm sure they're fudged a little for entertainment purposes. I know that Kathy Cash (John's dughter) walked out of the film five times and had to be convinced to come back in by publicists. She cited a couple reasons: one, her mother Vivian (Cash's first wife) is portrayed too negatively in the film. I didn't think so, at the times when she is angry or upset, she has a right to be. Two, Johnny's father is also portrayed in a far too negative light. He's not as unloving and mean as the film makes him out to be, she said. Many have also said that the movie doesn't show the true amount of spirituality and faith that the Cash/Carter families held and how that came through in the music. A minor detail in my opinion.

      A few other stars from the era freckle the screen at different points: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings (portrayed by his son, Shooter). It was kind of fun to see these performances. Anyway, just a side note and something kinda neat to watch for.

      To sum it up: fantastically amazing, Oscar worthy performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon; a good, although already told, story line; lots of toe tapping great music; set design, costumes et al are detailed to perfection; better than "Ray," it's inevitable competition in the comparison race. Even non fans of Cash can enjoy if they're into the whole music star lifestyle story. But fans of Cash will absolutely love this film. And I can agree. I hope it sees lots of nods at the Academy this year.

The official Johnny Cash web site
Complete Johnny Cash biography at Wikipedia
Official movie page - see the trailer, pictures, get downloads and read more about the man in black.
Buy the soundtrack