Walk the Line
Director(s): James Mangold
Writer(s): Gill Dennis and James Mangold
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Nov 18, 2005 - Wide
I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash as I sat down before the screening of Walk the Line. I knew he was a music legend. I knew he had a powerful voice and was called the Man in Black. I’d even seen his appearance on SNL in the Eighties. Above all else, I had heard of the undying love between him and June Carter. I didn’t know his back story though and that was about to change.
The film starts off with a 12-year-old Cash and the accidental death of his old brother. His hard-drinking father (Robert Patrick) blames him for the accident and says that God took the wrong son. From an early age, Johnny was fighting to prove himself. We move on to his Air Force service in the Fifties and then on to his first marriage to Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin) in Memphis. He forms a band and though the guys can barely play at first, he gets up the courage to audition for the now legendarySam Phillips, owner of Sun Records. Their first song is a standard gospel tune, but when Phillips asks for a tune that means something to him, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) performs a driving rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues”, a song that included the line “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Phillips, impressed by the raw power of the song, signs a contract with the band.
Soon he’s on tour with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whose family is country royalty. Cash is a star, but drugs and alcohol abuse start to affect him and the growing relationship he shares with June. Even when his marriage to Viv ends, his abuses prevent him from quickly getting the woman he truly loves.
Director James Mangold focuses on the music and the love story. He knows that the music was how Cash got his demons out and that the love for June was what kept those demons at bay when he finally exorcised them. In some biopics, the music is heard in brief snippets, but here the music is often front and centre.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance as Johnny Cash. He and Witherspoon did their own singing for this movie and Phoenix captures the raw power of Cash’s voice. June tells Johnny that his singing is “steady like a train, sharp like a razor” and Joaquin’s performance has the same intensity.
Witherspoon is also mesmerizing as June Carter, a woman who could play the comic foil in an Opry performance and then keep a bunch of drunken musicians in line after the show. Witherspoon needs to convey the strength that enabled June to drag Cash out of the depths of his addiction and she does so with ease.
I’d probably have to say these are the best performances of their careers. There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding the two of them and it’s well-deserved. Robert Patrick also gives a solid performance as the father Johnny can never satisfy.
Clocking in at 135 minutes, the script by Gill Dennis and Mangold has enough room to tell the story that needs to be told without feeling overly long. I entered the cinema having a basic knowledge of Johnny Cash. I left wanting to purchase a box set of his music.