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Walk the Line
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Before Johnny Cash was the Man in Black, he was just another musician struggling to make something of himself. 'Walk the Line' chronicles the extraordinary rise to fame of a musical legend. Overcoming early hardships such as the accidental death of his brother, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) stormed Nashville with his innovative blend of rock, folk, blues, gospel and country. But even as his creativity blossomed, his heavy drug use took a toll, leading to a period of destructive behavior and the failure of his first marriage. It was June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of the first family of country music, who lifted Cash out of his emotional chaos and helped him to become the man and the musician he was meant to be.
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But enough about the Ray Charles movie, let's talk about Walk the Line.
Johnny Cash is brought to life on screen by Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance out-Foxxes all recent depictions of true-life characters. Phoenix's portrayal finds strength in the actor's ability to pay just enough attention to looking and sounding like Cash without letting it overwhelm him. Other "transformations" of celebrities (Foxx's Charles, Blanchett's Hepburn) seem to be more akin to a Darryl Hammond impression on SNL, as they focus on mimicking the person's mannerisms and end up losing their own humanity.
Playing Cash requires Phoenix not only to sing (which Foxx did not), but also to love someone so deeply that the absence of her love drives him to self destructive practices. In the song that leant its title to this film, Cash tells us he keeps a close watch on his heart. He builds walls and drapes himself in black, keeping the world away. While Phoenix captures this stand-offish outward presentation of Cash, he also opens him up, exposing the singer's vulnerabilities. The mysterious Man in Black loves. He cries. He lives.
June Carter (Reece Witherspoon) haunts the first hour of the film. She is ever-present in Cash's life, but out of his reach; he listen to her on the radio as a young boy and reads about her first marriage while stationed in Germany. Clearly, the film's central story is their love, told from Johnny's point of view. Once June becomes a steady force in the film, the narrative moves from being the story of Johnny Cash to their courtship. Witherspoon brightens her scenes with a perky energy that masks an inner turmoil equal to Johnny's. On stage, Witherspoon bests Phoenix (a major feat, as he is fantastic) and has a career in country music if this acting thing doesn't work out.
Walk the Line's supporting characters read like a Who's Who of 1950s music. Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, etc. The two scene-stealing performances belong to unknown actors (unknown to me) playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records proprietor Sam Phillips. Phillips' first meeting with Cash provides the heart of the film, as he tells the young musician to sing as if he only has the chance to sing one song for the rest of his life. Phillips is rightly presented as a man who nurtured many young musicians and helped them find the voices that spoke to the masses.
My only criticism of the film is criticism I have for most biopics. I expect more from a film than just giving an account of someone's life (Ray, Ali, Man on the Moon). Those stories should be reserved for made-for-tv movies. Walk the Line has great ambitions when concerning the presentation of the material, but a lot of compromises are made on content. Much of the story-lines are clichéd, as real life has been heavily sculpted to fit a conventional drama (I seriously doubt Cash's father and first wife are as one-dimensional as presented).
But Walk the Line does not have the goal of competing with most other dramas. Primarily, it wants to remain faithful to the love story of Johnny and June Carter Cash and present their lives' work in a way that will entertain modern audiences as much as the toe-tappers who listened to them half a century ago. With those goals in mind, this film could not be improved in any way.