Walk the Line
March 13, 2006
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Shelby Lynne, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Payne, Shooter Jennings, Johnathan Rice,
Capitalizing on the popularity of Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005) also chronicles the turbulent career and life of an iconic musician, applying the same plot structure – their lives have parallel arcs and hit the same dramatic beats. Like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash struggled with substance abuse but helped beat addiction with the help from the love of a good woman. Unlike Charles, who wanted to be loved by millions (including being a shill for Pepsi), Cash became successful on his own terms, turning his back on the country music industry when they failed to support him.
The film begins with one of Cash’s most famous gigs – playing in front of a rowdy crowd of convicts in Folsom prison and then flashes back to his humble beginnings as a dirt poor sharecropper in the Deep South. As a child, Cash was tormented by an abusive father (Patrick) and plagued with guilt over the death of a brother he idealized at an early age. Cash (Phoenix) grows up and serves in the Armed Forces and then returns to Tennessee where he tries, unsuccessfully, to become a door-to-door salesman, all the while quietly cultivating his musical inclinations.
We get to see the evolution of several signature songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues” that culminates in the scene where Cash performs it in front of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Roberts) for the first time. It is at this moment that Cash transforms from hesitant performer to confident musician. Once he meets country singer June Carter (Witherspoon) backstage at a concert, its love at first sight but it is a courtship that would take years before she finally relented and married him.
Walk the Line is a fine, return to form for director James Mangold who started his career with the independent darling, Heavy (1995) and then followed it up with the star-studded crime drama, Cop Land (1997). He peaked with the critically lauded Girl, Interrupted (1999) and then struggled to find quality material, coasting with entertaining but otherwise forgettable films like Kate and Leopold (2001) and Identity (2003). Walk the Line is definitely a return to meatier, more substantial material.
Joaquin Phoenix is a strong actor who has been in search of the right role and has finally found it with this movie. He has been miscast in strong films (Gladiator) and been good in weak movies (Ladder 49). Walk the Line is perfectly matched with his considerable talents. It’s a daunting task for any actor to play a well-known public figure and even more so for an icon like Johnny Cash. Phoenix wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation of Cash, opting instead to convey the spirit of the man, capturing everything about him through the eyes.
Reese Witherspoon utilizes her adorable, plucky persona that she’s cultivated for years to maximum effect as Carter, matching Phoenix’s intensity and willingness to immerse herself completely in the role. Carter is the strong, moral centre on a tour filled with legendary bad boys – Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. She resists the lures of the open road and constant touring – the drugs and alcohol – that Cash succumbs to and this is part of her attraction to him. It is her purity and loyalty – standing by him even when he hits absolute rock bottom –that is a large part of her appeal for him. Carter is just as stubborn as he is and sticks by him because she loves and believes in him. Phoenix and Witherspoon have great chemistry together as they play out their on again/off again romance. They compliment each other so well. Cash is wild and Carter is wholesome and it is these ying and yang qualities that they love about each other.
This movie reminds us how good country music used to be – the white equivalent of the blues. Country music is about pain and suffering, not about flash and stadium theatrics from the likes of the new vanguard (Garth Brooks, et al). Walk the Line illustrates how pure the genre was back in the day as the influence of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly swirled around together. There is a primal simplicity to Cash’s music that is missing from the bloated theatrics of the newer generation. Walk the Line is an entertaining, big budget studio film that is well-made and a fitting tribute to the man and his music.
There is an audio commentary by co-writer/director James Mangold. He starts things off by reading the opening page of the screenplay which is a description of the opening scene to illustrate how a script is more than just dialogue and how closely what he wrote is to what we are watching. Mangold had wanted to make a Cash movie when he was making Copland. He talks about the challenges of making of a biopic and explains why he chose the time frame that he did. The director wanted his actors to be able to sing and play their own instruments because this was a film about authentic musicians. Mangold speaks eloquently about his filmmaking process, the film’s themes and Cash’s life, delivering a very informative track.
Also included are ten deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mangold. There is more footage of Cash’s inability to be a good salesman, more of his early days as a musician in Memphis and provides a little more insight into his first wife (Goodwin), fleshing out their turbulent relationship.