A film review by Craig J. Koban
WALK THE LINE
2005, R, 135 mins.
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
"The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars."
Johnny Cash, 1932-2003
Before Johnny Cash became Johnny Cash he was, at best, a mediocre singer with very little bravado, charisma, star appeal or natural talent. He was simply a modest Southern man, raised in poverty, named J. R. Cash. It would appear that his early aspirations to be a world-renowned vocal talent emerged as a result of his childhood.
He came from a hard-working Arkansas family with an abusive father that drank. His older brother wanted to be a preacher, but his life was cut short in a horrible accident. Cash loved the radio and worshiped the country tunes he heard on a daily basis, much to his father’s dismay. Daily life was a struggle, with both himself and his entire family slaving away on plantations in the 100 degree plus heat. He farmed for his family's sustenance, but he longed to sing.
Cash grew up and eventually served time in the Air Force. He subsequently was stationed in Germany where a pivotal moment in the life of this iconic figure occurred - he bought a guitar and wrote his first song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” He then returned home back to the US and tried to live the life of an everyman. He married, had children, and tried to modestly live out his young days through a variety of odd, yet underwhelming jobs (at one point, the future ‘Man in Black” was a desperate and struggling door-to-door salesman). Selling was not in his blood and, for that matter, not much else was…other than song writing and singing. He lived, breathed, tasted, and slept on his lofty aspirations of being a recording artist, so much so that his first wife – Vivian – complained incessantly. Could you blame her? Cash’s first band was rough and wet behind the ears, to say the least.
Yet, young J.R. still dared to dream, even at the risk of alienating those who were close to him. Unfortunately, he was just J.R. Cash and had yet to discover the Johnny Cash that would become a legend. Then one day he decided to take the plunge and walk into the legendary Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis to record an album. Sam, of course, saw why J.R. was not poised to become a marvel of music. He sang second rate gospel songs that have been done a million times before and by better artists, not withstanding the fact that Cash had no heart as a singer. Yet, J.R. then decided to abandon the Church songs and sing the one he wrote way back in Germany. At this moment, J.R. Cash became Johnny Cash, the one we all know today - the man whose voice was indeed “steady like a train, sharp like a razor.”
All of this, of course, is chronicled in James Mangold’s WALK THE LINE, a truly wonderful and intoxicating American biopic. The film will draw very obvious comparisons with last year’s Best Picture nominee, RAY. However, the similarities between the two are largely superficial. Both films are decidedly high profile looks at two of the most beloved figures in American music of the last half a century. Both of the real life men that the films are based on recently died (Cash in 2003). Both are jammed to the rafters with wonderful music, some of which became so popular and archetypal that even lay fans could hum them in the shower. Both films are unflinching accounts of their personas without sugarcoating or conveniently glossing over the more tumultuous and scandalous aspects of their careers. Both present these landmark figures of American recording history as men first, and near mythology figureheads second. Finally, both have two tremendous and uncanny performances in them. RAY had Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, a role that landed him his first Oscar. Cash is played by Joaquin Phoenix in a performance of such startling verisimilitude and subtle complexity that he seems, most assuredly, on his way down the red carpet next February.
However, Mangold’s WALK THE LINE is the type of completely engrossing and evocative biopic that I wanted even a good film like RAY to be. RAY was successful at transplanting its viewers into the milieu of Ray Charles - the man - and successfully celebrated his life and songs. RAY was precise with what it wanted to be and where it wanted to ultimately go, but it sort of got lost within its own narrative structure. We get glimpses of Charles’ life that often lacked the significant edge they deserved. Taylor Hackford’s biopic was more loud and boisterous; a somewhat of a larger-than-life portrait.
WALK THE LINE is so much more engrossing and encapsulating for its audience members in opposite ways. This is a quiet, tender, sincere, patient, and heartfelt portrait of Cash that feels more elegant, earnest and urbane with its overall story. This film does not ask us to reach out and worship Cash as an idol of music the way RAY did with Charles. WALK THE LINE is more of a clear-cut retelling of Cash’s life that allows us to make up our minds. RAY felt more fictional; WALK THE LINE feels more intimate, personal, and penetrating with its characters, story, and overall themes. Cash-o-holics will come out loving him more than ever after leaving the theatre. As for the rest of us? I think we’ll leave satisfied in the notion that there was much more to the man than looking unattainably cool while on stage.
WALK THE LINE is, at face value, a fairly standard biopic by Hollywood conventions, and it strongly adheres to most - if not all - of them. The overall all story arc of the film is ostensibly the same as so many other films about famous musicians. We get a look at the hard and tough early childhood that help mould and shape the musician to who they'd become later; the early brushes with fame that leads to early escalations of self-worth and ego; the initial good times that are to be had with newfound wealth and prestige; the hardships of dealing with a new career and being a grounded family man; the internal struggles one has with him/herself and their family; the love affairs, drinking and partying that would later give way to drugs; and finally the inevitable and obligatory run-in’s with the law.
To criticize WALK THE LINE for containing all of these elements seems superfluous and silly. Cash, indeed, lived this type of life. He had his share of up’s and down’s, as well as feelings of euphoria, excitement, inner regret and darker, unwanted impulses. Cash was so much more than just a prevalent man of American music folklore. WALK THE LINE deeply roots itself in getting down to the core of Cash by asking, “what drives this man” and “what’s his motivation?”
Like RAY, WALK THE LINE is not an all-encompassing look at Cash’s life, but rather finds itself more narrowly focusing on the key years of his career. It opens in 1944 in Arkansas and introduces us to 12-year-old Cash and his brother and family. We jump ahead to his time in Germany with the Air Force in 1952 and later in Memphis in 1955 to his fateful day with Phillips. While in Memphis we get glimpses of marital life with his wife Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin). We see the starting of his band – “The Tennessee Two” – and their early struggles to get noticed. Their first successful audition with Phillips gets them to headline a tour with the likes of other legendary music figures, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Shooter Jennings, and one particular country boy that would also become a legend that liked to wiggle his hips on stage and have his hair all slicked back. Oh, this young lad sure was also a pill popper and “liked to talk about the poon a lot,” as one musician humorously points out.
Of course, with the immediacy of fame came setbacks for Johnny. He does end up meeting June Carter (the amazing Reese Witherspoon), a young country singer that is not quite as ditzy and fun loving as her on-stage persona would lead one to believe. She, like Cash, is not a typically great vocal talent, but she made up for it in terms of her on-stage "character" she created and forged. She was funny and chipper on stage to mask her limitations as a singer. She may have been goofy and irreverent in performances, but off stage she was a real, thoughtful, frank, opinionated, and grounded person, one who seemed the least likely to get mixed up with Cash.
Cash is clearly not for the taking – he’s married and has kids, but he sure has a bigger problem with booze, pills, and “poon”. Cash grows to become, at first, infatuated with June and later grows to love her, but June initially feels otherwise. She cares for the lug a great deal, but can’t commit to him, even after what seems like dozens of proposals of marriage on his part. From here we see their troubled relationship that leads to Cash’s depravation, him hitting absolute rock bottom with his drug addiction, and finally a positive re-immergence of himself, which culminates in the now celebrated Folsom Prison concert.
WALK THE LINE does feel familiar, but it’s the characters, music, and how they are presented that is new and fresh. Mangold completely succeeds on a few distinct levels. Firstly, he presents those cherished Cash tunes which are now in the lexicon of all-time great songs, and he often portrays them uninterrupted, with tight close ups and hand held shots that bring a documentary-like veracity to the proceedings. Secondly - and most crucially - he focuses on the love story of June and Johnny with the needed element of his addictions thrown in for good measure.
Whereas RAY seemed to soften its presentation of Charles’ more troublesome behavior, WALK THE LINE never strays to the softer and road much more traveled approach. The film takes great pains to stand up and tell us that Cash was not a great man because he kicked drugs and self-destructive behavior all by himself for noble aspirations of becoming a better man. No, he needed the help and support of another – June – to propel him to abandon his addictions and inner struggles. Cash was by no definition a saint, nor is he a figure to be respected instantly. He was flawed and made mistakes, often while not having the perseverance to admit them. That’s the key to WALK THE LINE’S ingenuity with its subject matter – it rings with a truthfulness and frankness regarding its characters and allows us to cheer along with them while shunning them all the same. It’s both a rollicking and turbulent tribute to a man that allows us to recognize both the greatness in Cash as an artist while chastising his candor behind the scenes.
This film has three key performances, all of which are destined for Oscar nominations. First there is Phoenix as Cash and he may not look a lot like him, but he sure does personify and inhabit him. He does everything absolutely right – from his voice, to his mannerisms, to the subtle way he conveys an emotion, to – yes – even the way he sings. This is a performance that inspires and astonishes and many will be stunned to discover that Phoenix does all of his own singing – no lip-synching here. His vocals are startling and astounding and it soon becomes easy to buy into him as Cash. He has the necessary right blend of world-weariness and spunk with savvy and machismo. Phoenix himself learned to play to guitar from scratch and trained with a vocal coach for six months in preparation. Let me have the pleasure in saying that when he first steps up to the microphone and says those immortal words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” you sure do believe he is the man. Phoenix’s work is magical and inspires as much wonder and awe as any CG image in any escapist fantasy.
The two other performances are, for my mind, a bit more tricky and thankless. One is by Witherspoon as June, who also sings her own songs magnificently and brings so much joy, energy, cuteness, and sassiness to her portrayal. Her performance is so graceful, natural, and effortless in the way she can turn on and off her cute and cuddly stage figure and dive deep down into her more full-fledged character that is trying to save the man she loves, even if she can’t admit to loving him. This is arguably her best work in years.
Then there is Cash’s Dad, who I think is played brilliantly by Robert Patrick. His role is smaller and less of a presence, but it's crucial to the film’s psychological underpinnings. He acts as the springboard for Cash’s sense of inner defiance. He was hard on his songs, blamed him for his older son’s death (“God took the wrong kid”, he later tells him), and can’t come to grips with his son's later wealth and fame. Yet, when he changes and gives up the booze, his sobering ways act as another catalyst for Cash to recover. Patrick is so meticulously unnerving here as a man who can be both condemned for his past behavior to his family and later applauded for the way he stands up to his son who is destroying his life. He does so much with his eyes and that penetrating and unforgiving stare that when you see him do as little exchange glances with Johnny, you can sense all of the pain, hurt, and shame. Patrick’s work is so subtly powerful here.
James Mangold’s WALK THE LINE is a sure-fire triumph - a grand, sprawling, and unquestionably moving American biopic of one of the most important and influential voices in music of the last century. Sure, it fumbles around with the facts and does its fair share of fictionalizing (what screen biography does not?), but what it does masterfully is present the essence of Johnny Cash – who he was, where he came from, how he came to be, and the personal battles and struggles he went through. This is a work of such uncanny fortitude. It involves us it its story and contains performances of such undying conviction, charisma, and realism by Phoenix and Witherspoon that it meticulously grounds the film in a level of meaningful resonation. This is a much more attentive, considerate, and inquisitive portrayal of musician than other lesser biopics and it does a fantastic job of de-mystifying an enigmatic figure. WALK THE LINE brilliantly deconstructs Johnny Cash from a legendary to a human scale and, as a result, it’s one of 2005’s most endearing and entertaining films.