“What’s with the black? Looks like you’re going to a funeral.”
“Maybe I am.”
It’s this bleak attitude that characterizes the self-destructive behavior of the Man in Black in the new film “Walk the Line” (20th Century Fox). Everyone is familiar with Johnny Cash – his black wardrobe, aching songs and steely voice; but what drove him to create this dark persona? The movie attempts to explain a man who touched so many lives, yet had a deeply troubled life of his own.
The film follows Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) as a distressed young child with an unhappy family life, to his rocky first marriage, through his eventual rise to stardom. The screenplay by Gill Dennis and James Mangold does a good job at highlighting the events that shaped Cash’s gritty personality: the death of his brother and the constant disapproval of his father, which haunt him throughout his life and drive his insecurities. While on a tour, Cash meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and the two immediately develop an affinity for one another. The rest of the movie concentrates on Johnny’s quest to be with June, while his dangerous behavior and drug addictions threaten his chances with her.
Based on two autobiographies by Cash, the film is highly personal and heavily researched. Johnny and June Carter Cash hand-picked Phoenix and Witherspoon and worked closely with the script until their deaths in 2003. Both actors coached for months to play and sing like the famous pair, resulting in impressive vocals throughout the movie. Their energy and charisma during the songs show the appeal of the duo, from their first tours together to the famous Folsom Prison performance in 1968.
Witherspoon is vibrant as the feisty June Carter, portraying her as a headstrong but fragile figure. Joaquin Phoenix will surely be nominated for an Oscar with this performance. He does a dead-on impersonation of Cash while also adding layers to the singer’s tortured personality and volatile drug abuse. Phoenix and Witherspoon have great chemistry together, and director James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”) does a good job at developing intimate scenes between the two.
“Walk the Line” is a fairly conventional Hollywood biopic that comes around every Oscar season, and doesn’t really offer anything new. It follows the familiar story of a miserable childhood, drug abuse, love, loss and the troubles of stardom. However, the film ultimately works because it doesn’t just focus on Johnny Cash’s career, faring much better than last year’s “Ray,” which seemed like a timetable of events.
Although Cash fans may be disappointed at the neglect of his musical development, the strength of “Walk the Line” is in the portrayal of the great love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter. Their intimate relationship is the driving force of the movie and of much of Cash’s life. The movie really ends up being about a man who finds redemption through love after walking the fine line between devastation and success.
“Walk the Line” opens nationwide on Nov. 18.