Comparisons to last year’s “poor boy makes good with raw talent, almost ruins it with drugs and womanizing, and then redeems self” award-winning biopic Ray are inevitable, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Walk the Line does less than Ray in showing us the character that made the man’s music, where the music came from, and it does more than Ray by showing us the delicate dance of Johnny Cash’s lifelong obsession/romance with June Carter. As a romance, Walk the Line is a love story of Johnny with June, and the public with Johnny’s unique sound and stage presence. Joaquin Phoenix grinds the microphone with an eerie and rugged take on Cash’s famous baritone, and Reese Witherspoon lights up her microphone with her Louisiana twang. They carry the burden of portraying both the romantic and sexual chemistry of this legendary pair, and the more difficult to replicate onstage chemistry of their road show. Oh, and they do all their own singing and playing. Phoenix even learned to play guitar with Cash’s weird hand positions for authenticity.
One could be sad for this little movie that could; so many studios passed on it, it eventually got made almost as a charity case by slashing prices and salaries; a risk in a country-music unfriendly Hollywood and with a couple of actors who aren’t quite the A-listers such a project would need. Both are dependable performers, as their many fans will attest, but they don’t have the dollar signs tattooed on them that some other faces might have provided. As oftens seems to happen, the little movie that could gets made with more love equity than dollar strength, and as a result, the final product is all the richer for it. The period details alone would have made a studio flinch at the cost, never mind the music rights and licensing of the other legendary performers in Cash’s late-50’s road shows.
Walk of Fire spans only 24 years, with a coda to the Cashes deaths in 2003, but the amount of music that flows over the audience seems only possible in twice that time. We never get a sense of what drove Johnny to his music; we can infer but the man remains a mystery even after such an intimate screen tale. His fandom and later obsession and love for June Carter is evident, so the movie becomes more of a danceless musical romance than a biopic about the rise of a unique musical talent. He was a unique musical talent, but Walk the Line spends less time on him and more on them. It’s satisfying as a story, certainly, but a little frustrating as a biography. True to what we know of their characters, Reese is comfortable onstage and in love with the audience, while Joaquin still seems remote and distant from them. In photos, his hooded eyes are restless and haunted, a quality that does not shut off even when the actor is taking pictures of himself, and perhaps that kept me from connecting to Johnny Cash. (Interestingly, on film, Ray Charles gave me zero eye contact but Foxx’s spirit was so open onscreen I felt as if he had.)
From a technical perspective, Walk the Line was a lovely, moving, and interesting film, but I feel as though Johnny Cash remains an enigma only to be guessed at in his music.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/18/05
Time in minutes 135
Director James Mangold
Studio 20th Century Fox