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"A stirring, straightforward musical masterpiece."
"(Witherspoon) earns our empathy in one of the finest performances of the year. "
"Exudes the same rugged simplicity and poetic beauty that filled Cash's own existence."
Walk the Line  


John R. Cash: Joaquin Phoenix
June Carter: Reese Witherspoon
Vivian Cash: Ginnifer Goodwin
Ray Cash: Robert Patrick
Sam Phillips: Dallas Roberts
Luther Perkins: DAn John Miller
Marshall Grant: Larry Bagby
Carrie Cash: Shelby Lynne
Elvis Presley: Tyler Hilton
Jerry Lee Lewis: Waylon Malloy Payne
Waylon Jennings: Shooter Jennings
Review December 2005

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's okay,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man in Black.

"The Man in Black" - Johnny Cash

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." With a distinguished baritone voice and a constant rockabilly rhythm, Johnny Cash reshaped the country music landscape with confidence. Widely recognized as the man in black, Johnny Cash became a legend, a rebel rocker with a conscience whose songs reached out to the impoverished, the blue collar, and the downtrodden. Based on Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, "Walk the Line" chronicles Cash's early struggles, from his childhood days in Kingsland, Arkansas to his first big break at Sun Records to the gradual rise to fame and fortune on the country music scene, culminating in the famous concert at Folsom Prison. But even more so, the film depicts a great love story - the kindred spirit and long lasting romantic affair between Johnny and June Carter Cash. Filled with great music, "Walk the Line" pulsates with songs like "Hey, Porter" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" that gave Johnny his start to the songs that defined his success: "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire," and the film's title track. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, "Walk the Line" is a stirring, straightforward musical masterpiece.

The sound of a buzz saw from within Folsom Prison spurns a flashback. Born and raised in a small Arkansas town, Johnny Cash grew up working in the cotton fields alongside his parents, Ray and Carrie, and his brother, Jack. And he grew close to his brother, oftentimes going fishing with him and listening to country and gospel music's finest as heard on the local radio. But in 1944, a tragic accident would forever change young Cash. While Johnny was fishing, his brother Jack was pulled into a whirling table saw and sadly passed away. Making matters worse, his already strained relationship with his father was made more severe as Ray blamed Johnny for Jack's death. And for that, Johnny was burdened with a tremendous amount of guilt for the rest of his life.

Eventually, he grew up and enlisted in the Air Force, where he aspired to be a musician and came to write his first song. Then, following his tour of duty, Johnny found a wife in Vivian Liberto, settled down, and worked as an appliance salesman out of Memphis. It was a respectable life, but one far short of his dream of becoming a recording artist. While in Memphis, he stumbled upon Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, who later became known as the Tennessee Two. Together, the threesome honed their talent and won over producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records. They recorded a few hit songs such as "Hey Porter" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" and soon thereafter joined a tour with the likes of a young Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and the lovely singer/comedienne June Carter, of whom Johnny felt an immediate attraction.

But as Johnny became more popular, so too did his problems. Constantly touring, he became distant from his wife and children, he began drinking heavily and became addicted to painkillers, and on numerous occasions, found himself in trouble with the law. No matter what Johnny did, he could not impress his father. Nor could he escape the ghost of his brother. And when things seemingly hit rock bottom, it was June and her family who pulled up their bootstraps and intervened, giving Johnny the love and support that he sorely missed growing up. With a second lease on life, Johnny Cash made the most of it, determined to walk that line.

Directed by James Mangold, "Walk the Line" is most noticeably a tender love story with lots of great music. But underneath the warm and pleasant exterior, there lies a harder edge as the film deals head on with Johnny Cash's personal afflictions involving childhood trauma, drugs and alcohol, and pressures to perform. Such characteristics are quite familiar to Mangold, a director who first earned acclaim in 1995 for "Heavy," a Sundance award winner about an overweight pizza chef trying to find romance in light of his negative self-image. And it was also Mangold who was responsible for "Cop Land," starring Sylvester Stallone, about a half-deaf sheriff trying to maintain a guilt free conscience while fighting police corruption, and Susanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted," about a woman trying to overcome internal demons while at a mental hospital. And it is this kind of insight, that depiction of personal affliction that Mangold brings to the table, effortlessly evoking moments of awkward strife, emptiness and sorrow, guilt and yearning, and that devilish abandon that comes from drug dependency.

I am always impressed with actors willing to take risks, i.e. comediennes taking on straight roles, well known action heroes playing villains, etc. And in "Walk the Line," both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon take monumental ones, juggling between acting, singing, and musicianship. A very difficult task made more so by the fact that both were hand picked by Johnny and June Carter Cash themselves - an honor and a heavy obligation rolled into one. The two spent nearly six months in vocal training with music producer T-Bone Burnett. And during that time, Phoenix learned to play the guitar and Witherspoon the auto-harp. In fact, I was surprised to learn that both actors truly sang and played each and every song. And while the sound isn't a perfect match with their counterparts, the illusion works to perfection. After all, it's the spirit that counts. And there is an indescribable feeling that overwhelms you when the two share the same stage - an original moment. Just watch the rip roaring "It Ain't Me Babe" or the romantic cat and mouse game that occurs during "Jackson" and you'll know exactly what I mean.

In the title role, Joaquin Phoenix evokes expressionless anguish. Embittered and wrought with guilt, Johnny rarely finds pleasure or happiness in life, sulking and frowning so much that he draws such comments from his wife: "With you all dressed in black, you look like you're goin' to a funeral." His behavior and appearance is full of sorrow, easily enlivened by the outgoing and vibrant June Carter, portrayed wholesomely by Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon is almost angelic, giving June proper respect and virtue, particularly since the public and private personas were so extreme and misunderstood. From strong and motherly to smart and charming to enraged and betrayed, Witherspoon shows the full spectrum, properly matching Phoenix scene for scene. And earns our empathy in one of the finest performances of the year.

Although the film follows the same formula for music biopics of the past, i.e. a traumatic childhood, an early breakthrough, conflicts of fame and fortune, drug addiction, marriage troubles, and life on the road, it succeeds because it never wavers. Remaining focused throughout, "Walk the Line" is easy to follow and enjoy. For, unlike Taylor Hackford's "Ray," which tried to do too much by covering Ray Charles' entire life and times, "Walk the Line" stays focused on the romance between Johnny and June Carter Cash. From Johnny's childhood days of listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio to the early touring days through drug intervention and failed relationships, that single thread remains the same. In fact, it would remain a common theme beyond the film, for well over thirty years. Secondly, the importance of the music cannot be ignored. Music is what brought Johnny and June together and in the film, it acts as an extension of the story rather than the story itself. On stage, the energy and magnetism are at their strongest, and the sounds and lyrics require no explanation. Cleaner and tighter, "Walk the Line" wisely and beautifully contains itself.

Some sixty years after his brother's death and all Johnny Cash could talk about was a reunion with his brother in Heaven. Sadly, that day came on September 12, 2003, less than four months after his wife's death, when Johnny Cash passed away at the age of 71 due to complications from diabetes. An American icon, Cash personified country music, won numerous Grammy awards, transcended genres, inspired the likes of Bob Dylan to U2, and demonstrated the necessity of breaking musical boundaries and rules. The film is a fitting tribute to the man in black, exuding the same rugged simplicity and poetic beauty that filled Cash's own existence. And with two magnificent performances from Phoenix and Witherspoon, "Walk the Line" reverberates thematically with feelings of sorrow and redemption. In fact, it's the kind of movie that Johnny himself would have been proud of - a movie that was "steady like a train, sharp like a razor."

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