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WALK THE LINE (PG-13) (2005)

20th Century Fox

Official Site

Director: James Mangold

Producers: Cathy Konrad, James Keach

Written by: Gill Dennis & James Mangold; based on Man In Black and Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Malloy Payne, Shooter Jennings


'Man in Black' Johnny Cash dead at 71

As you might expect, Walk The Line has a very rich soundtrack. Joaquin Phoenix has managed to capture much of the universally recognized physicality of Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon has never been more appealing than she is here, as June Carter. So why am I not bowled over?

Well for one thing, there’s no way to keep from comparing this to the gold standard of singer biopics, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which plumbed similar material. The songwriting process isn’t as well done here as in CMD, though a lot of scenes are devoted to showing us the origins of classics such as “Get Rhythm!” “Ring Of Fire,” and “I Walk The Line.” Also, there’s no way to keep from noting similarities to last year’s Ray, which also featured the childhood scar of a dead sibling as (part of) the reason for later acting-out and drug-taking. Who could have guessed that the most flesh-and-blood parts of these latter two movies would be their scenes of musical performances (viz. the blistering performance of “Cocaine Kid” at Folsom)? But finally, Walk The Line employs an almost textbook conventional telling for the story of a man most of us perceive as the definition of unconventional. Cash was the original “he did it his way” guy, and he and his legions of fans are ill-served by James Mangold’s by-the-numbers treatment, which ends when the hero gets the girl.

Fortunately, The Johnny Cash Story is such good stuff that you could get a couple of stars just off the material.

And cute little Reese Witherspoon is always worth a star or two.

Walk The Line is pretty herky-jerky as it covers Cash’s childhood and early, pre-musician years, sketchily filling in the Important Stuff You’ll Need To Know For Later. The movie finally pauses to draw breath once Cash begins to pursue a music career in earnest. He was in the right place at the right time, passing by the Sun Records recording studio in 1955. The Sun studio boasted a “Make Your Own Record” sign, prompting me to wonder whether vanity recording was the same kind of craze for DIY-ers in the fifties that blogging is now. At any rate, Cash’s career takes off under the guidance of producer Sam Phillips (Roberts) and soon he’s on a nonstop succession of tour dates.

As in Lady Sings The Blues, the sine wave of raved-up performance followed by the grind of getting to the next show leads to the need for, well, if not speed, something like it, and soon Cash is a pill-popping musician-stereotype. Why is that a stereotype? Lots of music stars fight demons like drugs or the drink, but then again, lots more don’t. June Carter, Cash’s soulmate, didn’t. What’s different in her character that she was not tempted in these ways? One well-done aspect of Mangold’s storytelling is the near-constant juxtaposition of Cash’s heart-and-soul passion with Carter’s head-over-heart pragmatism. It makes the long walk to the altar for these two all the more understandable. In one wonderfully illustrative scene, Cash proposes to Carter and tells her that some issue will work itself out, to which Carter replies, “No, it does not work itself out. People work it out for you and you think it works out.” Now that’s great stuff, and you can see the frustration of this woman who simply refuses to take any shit but is also yearning for the pitiful fellow she loves to get his shit in a stack. No wonder it burned, burned, burned.

The movie tends to dwell on the drama-filled drug-abuse stuff, including the stock scene of Celebrity Sweating Out The Drugs. Cash emerges from this ordeal weak as a ewe lamb, and June leads him back into the fold, telling him that God has given him a second chance. Religion and faith play a big part in Cash: The Autobiography, and I did just wonder how God would be treated in this movie. Save for this brief mention and Carrie Cash’s book of hymns, the almighty gets dissed again. Sigh. Walk The Line leans also to literal pop-psychological explanations. By no means is Cash Sr. (Patrick) a warm, cuddly father. Robert Patrick does a great job as the taciturn dad who is not encouraging, but also not exactly wrong about some stuff either.

Examples of further stock footage include a couple of things you never want to see again, like:

• a creekbed scene of Carter teaching Cash how to cast a line, as one of those touchy-feely, let-me-spoon-up-behind-you situations that make you wonder when was the first time this blocking occurred in a movie

• a scene of loss and anguish shot through the back window of a car pulling away

• an out-of-control, higher-than-a-kite musician stumbling about helplessly on stage.

On the plus side, Cash’s promotion of Carter’s solo singing career, an undeniable good for the world, is shown. And this movie will definitely make you want to hunt up and listen to more Carter Family/June Carter recordings, as well as more Johnny Cash recordings (accompaniment for this review—Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash: The Essential Sun Recordings; Son Volt, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot—and a nice shiraz). You will have a better chance of coming to deeper knowledge of The Man In Black through the music than through this movie.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

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