November 24, 2005
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
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.
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
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.