Walk the Line2005

Director: James Mangold

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

Release Company: 20th Century Fox

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Walk the Line

It's that time of year again—the final two months when studios trot out their Oscar hopefuls. While Twentieth Century Fox doesn't score a sure bet to garner a Best Picture nomination with Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix is a slam dunk for grabbing a Best Actor nomination and Reese Witherspoon likely secures a nod in the actress category. Much of the film slips into the revised Hollywood biopic formula that requires the genre to expose a few character warts along the way to ultimate redemption, but the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon alone make this a “must see.”

Inevitable comparisons to Jamie Foxx and Ray will fill the tabloids, as chameleon actor Phoenix walks a similar narrative journey through legendary Johnny Cash's persona: tragedy of losing a brother in childhood, blazing an independent path to musical success, struggling with marital problems and infidelities, and facing a severe drug problem before coming to terms with himself. Phoenix is not the physical dead-ringer for young J.R. Cash that Foxx was for Ray Charles, but Phoenix transforms himself into the “Man in Black” with a few touches of darkened and slicked down hair and nailing his body posture and mannerisms. His somber countenance and soulful dark eyes penetrate past the superficial, and Phoenix's lip scar adds to the transformation by hinting at the rugged furrows and crags of the older John Cash.

But the most amazing “trick” comes through Phoenix's voice, and here is where he actually ups the ante on Jamie Foxx (who lip synced his way through Ray Charles' songs). As you've likely read in dozens of accounts, Phoenix does his <i>own</i> singing—remarkably well and a stellar representation of Johnny Cash's unmistakable bass that emerges deep from the bottom of the well. Although it's not as full throated as Cash, it's very much like the legendary singer with a slight head cold and certainly good enough to win any impersonation hands down and professional enough to land on the soundtrack album. I have no idea how the Hell Phoenix accomplishes this; I didn't think anyone could come close to duplicating Cash's vocals. Although not nearly as challenging, kudos also to Witherspoon for her rendition of June Carter Cash's southern twang. Doing her own singing as well, Witherspoon sounds much like the original that would be difficult to distinguish if you were blindfolded.

Although the main reason to see Walk the Line is to check out the two lead actors and their remarkable vocalization, the film does have other worthwhile moments to enjoy and savor. Derived largely from autobiographical material, the screenplay wisely focuses primarily on Cash's early career through the landmark 1968 Folsom Prison concert that co-incides with romancing June Carter into marriage. Thus, we are saved from a chronological blow by blow tour of Cash's entire life and the most public on stage love affair in country music. I was also relieved that director James Mangold spared us an explicit dismembership scene after an early visual clue in the Folsom Prison shop.

Only broad strokes present impressions of Cash's childhood—his love and gift for music that come from his mother and the emotional abuse that he suffers from his father (“God took the wrong son”). Military service whisks Cash to Germany long enough for us to see him buy a guitar and write a song based on a newsreel about Folsom Prison before he settles into Memphis with new bride Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and growing family. Dirt poor as a door-to-door salesman and facing eviction, Cash auditions for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Sun Records in arguably the film's best scene.

Rightfully rejecting Cash's dutiful gospel song, Phillips asks if he and his Tennessee Two have anything else: “If you had an accident, were dying on the road, and had to sing one song to express how you felt about life, what would it be?” Cash tentatively offers his “Folsom Prison Blues,” growing in confidence until he's in full voice by the third verse. A smile widens on Phillips' face at the same point that Joaquin Phoenix becomes the Johnny Cash that we are now so familiar with—the guy with the rumbling voice that comes from below, “steady as a freight train.”

Music fans will enjoy the vignettes of the other stars in Sam Phillips' pantheon that include a frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and soon to be rock n' roll King Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and realize why Johnny Cash is difficult to confine to the country music genre. After seeing him perform a lively rock-a-billy song and deal with backstage groupies, Cash gazes at Elvis' on stage performance, and we all see that it's very similar to Cash's. We can only speculate on why their careers diverged; the film hints at Cash's emotional baggage and rebellious nature to be his own man instead of following rules as possible reasons.

But the music is well known and provides the necessary background. The real narrative thread rests with Cash's developing relationship with June Carter and how he comes to terms with his amphetamine addiction, his past, and himself. Phoenix and Witherspoon generate sufficient chemistry to make it all work believably.

That's an old story that's been recounted a few times, yet Walk the Line traces Cash's growth economically with a handful of memorable scenes that make its 136 minutes pass pleasantly. It stops short of being a truly great biopic by refraining from entering the darker regions of Cash's soul to explore what connects him to his prison audience, but the acting compensates for any scriptural shortcomings. The buzz about both Phoenix and Witherspoon learning to play the guitar and autoharp respectively from scratch, their spot on singing, and their sincerely rendered performances are virtually certain to have both walking the red carpet line at Oscar time.

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