Another version of country music legend Johnny Cash's story comes to the big screen in the form of James Mangold's sometimes searing, but always entertaining, Walk the Line. While comparisons to last year's Ray are inevitable both follow the rags-to-riches-to-rags then back-to-riches formula Walk the Line's more narrowed focus and endearing character treatment, make it as big and imposing as the man in black himself. Ray was an all-encompassing biography of Ray Charles that was satisfied with a mile-high point of view, but Walk the Line is an endearing love story that focuses its attention on Cash's undying affections for June Carter.
Mangold and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis base their screenplay on Johnny Cash's books Man in Black and Cash the Autobiography. But rather than trying to force 70-plus years of Cash's life into a two-hour movie, they highlight their focus on the most dramatic and tumultuous years those from Cash's poverty stricken boyhood as a sharecropper's son in Arkansas, through his rise to stardom and marriage to June Carter, and culminating with his 1968 concert in Folsom Prison. This narrowed approach not only reveals a largely unknown part of Cash's life, it also gives the viewer a more well-rounded perspective of the future American treasure.
We learn of Johnny Cash's dark and tragic childhood via a flashback to when his older brother is killed in an accident. Cash must learn to not only live with the guilt of his own heavy heart, but must also deal with a father who believes the accident took the wrong child. Cash's struggles are reflected in his early song writings that are mostly religious hymns and psalms, but neither his father nor his young bride Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) are too pleased when Cash makes known his desires to become a musician. But his fate is sealed after moving to Memphis and performing for Sam Phillips of the fledgling Sun Records, where recording artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others got their start. One of the film's most memorable scenes depicts Cash's audition with Phillips. When asked by Phillips "If you were dying on the side of the road, and had to sing one last song to express your life, what one would it be", Cash reluctantly responds with his dusky, dulcet-toned rendition of Folsom Prison Blues. The rest is history.
Walk the Line really begins to soar once Cash meets June Carter during an extended road trip. It's at this point that the movie ceases to be a singular biopic about a dangerous man and his deadly vices, and transforms into a mesmerizing love story where we truly care about the characters. It was hard to sympathize with Ray Charles because of his drug and booze-fueled self-destruction and his numerous infidelities. But even though Cash and Charles were both miserable wretches, it's Cash's love for one woman and our natural desire to see the hero get his heroine that makes us root for his success. Where Charles ran through a stable of women, Cash yearns for the love of just one. Somehow that makes us feel better about overlooking all the pills, drugs, booze, violence and other improprieties.
The performances of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash need special mention here, especially that of Witherspoon. She captures Carter's saintly wholesomeness with her own bright-eyed, bubbly smile and perky personality. But the pair's chemistry is a bit uneven throughout the film. Phoenix never really becomes Johnny Cash for me. Sometimes, from a distance, I can see him (if I squint my eyes), but aside from the perfectly mimicked ticks, mannerisms, and guitar strums, it was a stretch for me. Cash was a big, imposing figure with a booming voice, but I never go that from Phoenix.
At the heart of the film is the passionate music that coaxed a generation away from the silky-smooth tones of Doris Day and into the harder-edged sounds of the Sun Records boys. Mangold felt the most authentic way to capture this loss of innocence was to have Witherspoon and Phoenix perform their own songs. The new sound of the day was a bit rough and tumble, so training the principal cast to perform many of the songs live made sense.
Walk the Line is a masterfully crafted film with ample amounts of drama, humor and raw emotion. Viewers may become slightly frustrated with Cash's reckless actions and self-destructive behavior, but Mangold's clever pacing and non-linear structure keep the story moving without lessening the emotional impact. You don't have to like Johnny Cash to enjoy the film; nor will it be necessary to even know who he was. The captivating love story is enough to entertain even the most uninformed moviegoers.
Screen formats: Widescreen 1.85:1
Subtitles: English; Spanish
Language and Sound: English: DTS 5.1 Surround
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.
o Audio Commentary by Co-Writer and Director James Mangold
* Deleted Scenes - 10 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by James Mangold
* Trailer - Original theatrical trailer for Walk the Line plus other 20th Century Fox feature releases. Product Trailers - Original Soundtrack.
Number of discs: - 1 - Keepcase Packaging.
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