I Walk the Line
The very best of Johnny Cash
"Walk the Line"
At a time when popular music was undergoing a seismic shift, when Bob Dylan was establishing a new standard of poetic vision, when Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and others were fluttering teenage hearts like never before, and the country was awakening to the expressive potentials of folk music, Johnny Cash established and maintained his rare, dynamic figure in the musical landscape. A country singer, songwriter and occasional musical humorist, his material ranged from rockabilly to blues to traditional folk and gospel, marked by a powerfully rythmic back beat and a stage charisma that commanded attention. It is, therefore, no wonder that a movie touching on the highlights of his life and career has finally been made after steady rejections by 4 studios and an independent (the guilty parties know who they are!).
As an Arkansas child in the 40's, Cash sang along with his father Ray (Robert Patrick), mother Carrie (Shelby Lynne) and brother Jack in the cotton fields, developing his rich bass voice. The loss of his brother in a saw mill accident and the withering cruelty of an overcritical father probably contributed to his later musical leanings, toward songs of sorrow, morality and redemption.
As an adult (Joaquin Phoenix), the movie recounts the moment during his service in the air force stationed in West Germany, after having watched "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison," a B-movie, he sits down and writes the song that is one of his most enduring signature pieces, "Folsom Prison Blues."
Back home, he marries Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin) and, in 1954 moves to Memphis and becomes a door-to-door salesman selling appliances. At night he gets together with his "band," guitarist Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) for local appearances, until he works up the nerve to audition for a record at the burgeoning Sun Records, a hotbed of musical discoveries that's starting the careers of Elvis Presley and what we now know as an amazing lineup of early talents. Cash's audition that led to his being signed by Phillips is near-legend in the annals of musical history.
It was Cash's 2nd record for Sun that put him in country music's Top 5, "Folsom Prison Blues," followed by No. 1 on the country charts, "I Walk the Line." His beat, his sorrow, the driving excellence of his songwriting and the power of his delivery brings him to a career pinnacle.
Tours become a major part of Cash's life -- a change that begins the erosion of his marriage and his introduction to drugs. Road caravans of country artists form around their common bookings and Johnny is traveling and performing in the company of Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne). (In a separate scene, we get to see Shooter Jennings portraying his legendary dad and Cash buddy, Waylon.)
But Cash's most significant fellow traveler is his boyhood idol, already- famous traditional singer, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of legendary Maybelle (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) and a member of country music royalty. There is no pedigree more esteemed in Nashville, Austin, Memphis and country miles in-between than The Carter Family. Johnny's life will never be the same.
Director James Mangold brings us a wide sampling of the Cash songbook, rhythmic, honest and articulate, rendered by Phoenix. But as emotional as the content of the music is, the gripping element and the one that gives the movie its primary and lasting impact, is Cash and Carter's personal story, his need to conquer his destructive addictions and bind with the woman who becomes his best friend, advocate, and influence, June.
The accounting of the relationship strongly suggests its actual evolvement, given the Cash and Carter families' close control over the story property. Cash, after his divorce, proposes to the lady who now provides his opening act. Rejected, he tries again and over again, in various situations and guises, until his dramatic ploy of proposing to her in the middle of a song before a live audience finally convinces her to take a chance with the guy who has, so often, brought her disappointment.
(Their marriage became, in real life, a long-sustained musical pairing and a case of mutual support that lasted until their deaths in 2003. June died first, in May, at the age of 73; Johnny less than four months later, at the age of 71. Their music, their legacy, and their bond make for the kind of inspiration that stands out in a field that sprouts inspiring stories like turnips and rutabaga.)
Phoenix's performance is clearly based on a close study of his subject. He devotes himself to recreating the man's physicality on stage, the unique manner in which he handled his instrument, his facial expressions, and the way Cash had of coming on stage ready to do business. All of which well evokes the man and his presence. At the same time, it reveals the limitations of film bios.
There's almost no way to make perfect choices in depicting historical figures, given that an actor has to portray a real person with a very big talent in a field other than his or her own. An option that was considered by the makers of this film would have had Phoenix lip syncing to Cash's actual tracks. Would that have improved the film? Or, would it have created its own distraction? Perhaps the model being followed was Jamie Foxx singing Ray Charles in the successful "Ray."
But for every success in bios of musical greats there are numerous failures -- whichever way you go in terms of accuracy. Where I come down on the issue in this case is that it's a fair remembrance, not a perfect copy, but close enough to inspire interest in the real artists. Its a fine evocation of a musical heavyweight whose legacy is respected, and whose story provides insight and entertainment for anyone who might find the music and the journey compelling.
Witherspoon, a Baton Rouge native and one of the most natural talents around, proves herself capable of native-born delivery of country music. Her solo with autoharp might make you wonder when she last performed at the Grand Ole Opry. But where she justifies her star power (and $15 million fee per picture) lies in her ability to express Carter's complex regard for Cash, a concentrated mix of love, admiration and fear of letdown. This was a woman of strict inner morality being wooed by a man with a history of self-destructive behavior. The effectiveness of Witherspoon's performance is no better illustrated than during the brief moment when she wordlessly watches Cash perform at Folsom, an internal expression of complex feelings.
June Carter Cash provided Johnny a reason not to submit to his demons. Witherspoon provides the picture an emotional richness, depth and balance not often achieved in movie-bio land.
Mangold takes certain liberties with the facts, such as the false presentation of events at Folsom. Bothersome but not ruinous. In detailing Cash's relationships with his family and parents, as well as the high points of his career, the picture takes on an ambling character with much repetition. Fewer scenes with future ex-wife Vivian, which seem intended to justify the divorce and accommodate those who might condemn him a worthless cad, and more of Carter's music and her stature in the country scene, would have been more germane.
For me, after "Ray," the Bobby Darin biopic "Beyond the Sea," the Beethoven story, "Immortal Beloved" and others, I no longer can ask, "why doesn't some daring filmmaker do another bio of a country singer?" (It's only been 25 years since "Coal Miner's Daughter"). For the moment, I'm satisfied that it's been done, and relieved that it was done this well.
The Soundtrack Album