Walk the Line
"When I was just a baby, my
mama told me, 'Son, always be a good boy; don't ever play with guns.'
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die..."
With that one line, a lonely
member of the Air Force from the deep south wrote his way into legendary storyteller status.
Johnny Cash was always larger than life and while he wrote hundreds of
evocative lyrics afterwards, those lines from the second stanza of his first
song, "Folsom Prison Blues," pretty much cemented his image and legend.
This new bio-pic, much like
Ray last year, brings to life a brilliant American musical icon, a
man who had as much talent as he had demons. Walk the Line has
the added benefit of including one of the great loves in musical history,
Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon) had
one of the most heartfelt marriages in recent times gone by. In fact, it may
have been too iconic; legend has it the first time Johnny Cash met June
Carter, he walked right up to her and said "My name is John Cash and someday
I will marry you," despite the fact that both of them had spouses and
children at the time. It is interesting that this well-known romantic
moment (or, granted, perhaps it is just a myth) was not included in the film, apparently writer/director James
Mangold thought the story would seem too Hollywood and unrealistic to people
who were new to the story, and he was probably right.
captures Cash in all his contradictions; his talent, his rage, his
weaknesses, his faith, his faithfulness and his womanizing. His life,
in many ways, was determined when he was just a small child. To a
great extent, everything that he accomplished was an attempt to prove
himself as worthy to his disapproving father (played with an acid tongue and
hair-trigger temper by Robert Patrick of Walk the LineTerminator 2). He
joined the military to impress the man. He started his band to prove
Not that Cash found his
musical voice all at once. In one extraordinary scene, we see the Man
in Black inventing himself. Cash has finally finagled an audition with
legendary producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records (who in addition to Cash
discovered Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins,
Charlie Rich and others.) Cash and his band play uninspired versions
of current gospel hits, which underwhelm the producer. Phillips gives
them one more chance, telling Cash to sing of his own life and experiences,
as if it was the last song he'd ever play.
Cash decides to do a song he wrote in the military called, "Folsom Prison
Blues," a song which his band has never heard and does not know. At
first Cash is shy and uncomfortable with the song, but as the song
progresses his entire attitude changes, he grabs ahold of the song and sings
it as if his salvation depends upon each word.
Joaquin Phoenix is truly
extraordinary in this scene (in the whole film, in fact), capturing the illusive magic of Cash's persona.
His performance is even more impressive because Phoenix sings every word in
this film, unlike Jamie Foxx, who lip-synched to Ray Charles' music in his
Oscar-winning performance in Ray. Granted, Cash is probably
easier to imitate than Charles. He was not a technically perfect
singer -- his vocals were gruff but his performance was not nearly as
nuanced, Cash pulled off his songs through the sheer will of his
The acting and musical
performances and story are so strong that it even when the film slips into
some of the standard Behind the Music territory -- the alcohol, the
drugs, the womanizing, the redemption -- none of it feels clichéd.
Walk the Line will be undoubtedly remembered at Oscar time, as it should
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: November 26, 2005.