Hippo Manchester
November 24, 2005

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Film: Walk the Line (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

Joaquin Phoenix follows Jamie Foxx on the road to Oscarland with his portrayal of a young Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, a thoroughly entertaining biopic.

Or, perhaps, Walk the Line is really more a love story than a biography — a love story between June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and Cash. We see Cash listening to Carter, who grew up in the famous singing Carter family, when he is just a poor boy picking cotton in 1940s Arkansas. The boy loves music and his older brother, a brother so regularly described as good and strong that we know his end will be soon and unhappy. His death in a sawmill accident will haunt the Cash family and Johnny (or JR, as he is called) forever.

Leaving an unhappy family life as soon as possible, Cash goes into the Air Force and we see glimpses of him in Germany, learning how to play guitar and writing “Folsom Prison Blues.” We also see him romancing a girl named Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), whom he eventually marries and takes with him to Memphis. There, Cash and his band, the Tennessee Boys, practice and get along with crappy day jobs while waiting to be discovered like contemporaries Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne). Vivian would rather Cash settle down and go back to Arkansas, where her father could give Cash a job.

A cliché amount of movie awkwardness and fumbling gets Cash and band an audition with Sam Philips (Dallas Roberts) of Sun Records. After swatting away their gospel songs, Phillips gets Cash to sing “Folsom Prison Blues” and a recording contract ensues.

Once on the road, Cash finds himself touring with Presley, Lewis and, to his great joy, June Carter. Perky, smart and professional, Carter likes Cash from the start but resists his advances and her own feelings because of both her own strong sense of morality and her need to keep her public image clean. This last becomes difficult as Carter’s own life starts to fall apart. She goes through two divorces, a fact that gnaws at her conscience and seems to make her fearful of her feelings for Cash.

Not good at rejection, Cash follows the usual traveling-musician road of drug use and groupie sex. Though he and June do eventually have a physical affair to match the emotional one, they can never quite be together (at least until the appropriate climax of the movie).

Walk the Line is entertaining, joyfully so at times, but by no means perfect. The decision to have the actors sing the songs rather than to dub in the musicians’ own voices was a risky one, something done perhaps for authenticity of emotion rather than authenticity of sound. But while we believe Witherspoon is indeed singing her heart out, just as June did, we miss hearing Carter’s and Cash’s real voices. Especially in the case of Cash, the original recordings pack a wallop that can’t be reconstructed even with the best vocal lessons.

And, though interesting in an A&E Biography way, the details of Cash’s childhood and first marriage aren’t, frankly, nearly as interesting as his great love with Carter or Carter herself. Both Witherspoon’s performance and Carter’s own life story are amazingly compelling. Carter’s Christian values were sincere and deeply felt (actual religious and moral convictions as opposed to the faker version that seem to be so in vogue now) and the way her life played out seems to greatly pain her. She didn’t want to divorce once, much less twice, and resists the idea that she is in love with a married man until, as is hinted by a scene where she writes the song “Ring of Fire,” that love consumes her and she can’t resist. Their romance as seen through her life would have made a truly fantastic and fascinating movie.