THE LINE (2005)
Director: James Mangold
man knows that he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."
Aside from remakes, the most recent big thing in Hollywood has been to make movies based on or inspired by true stories. From horror movies (The Amityville Horror, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to sports movies (Miracle, Glory Road) to action movies (Saving Private Ryan, Walking Tall) to dramas (Apollo 13), movies based on true stories have proven to be rather prevalent in filmmaking. Among these true stories are biographical movies. Of course, these are nothing new. Dozens have been made about a wide range of subjects, ranging from music legends like Jim Morrison and Loretta Lynn to people like comedian Andy Kaufman, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, and Scottish revolutionary William Wallace. With the exception of Braveheart, perhaps the most notable in recent memory is 2004's Ray. The cinematic biography of Ray Charles, Ray garnered high critical acclaim and numerous awards (including a Best Actor Oscar for star Jamie Foxx), proving it to be one of the biggest movies of the year. The tale of another drug-addicted singer was told to moviegoers just over one year later in the form of Walk The Line, the story of Johnny Cash. One of country music's first true outlaws, his distinctive sound and dark clothing made him one of music's most enduring icons. Many are quick to pigeonhole Cash as just a country star, yet he has transcended nearly every possible boundary in the fifty years since his first album was released. His influence as a musician can be seen in almost every popular genre, from country music to rock and roll, to even rap. (Famed film director Quentin Tarantino once mused, "I've often wondered if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash's tales of backwoods thug life.") Cash's tumultuous life story is the kind of tale that Hollywood scriptwriters can only dream of thinking up, so it only made sense for Walk The Line to enter production. Let's get to the review, shall we?
Following a brief prologue, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Johnny Cash (Ridge Canipe) and his brother Jack (Lucas Till) at their family's Arkansas cotton farm circa 1944. The brothers are an extremely close-knit pair, so when Jack is killed in an accident involving a table saw, young Johnny is devastated. His sorrow is exacerbated by his insufferable father Ray (Robert Patrick), who places the blame squarely on Johnny's shoulders by proclaiming that "God took the wrong son." From there, we take a quick glimpse of his stay in Germany while serving in the Air Force, then move to Memphis circa 1955, where the adult Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a family man and struggling traveling salesman. During a particularly bad day at work, he stumbles upon the Memphis Recording Service, the home of Sun Records. A "closed" sign hangs in the front, but when he hears music coming from the nearby alley, he sneaks around and watches some musicians recording an album before the soundman shoos him away.
Sometime later, Johnny and two friends, bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) and guitarist Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller), practice playing a gospel song on Johnny's front porch. They sound like they could use a lot more practice than what they're getting, which prompts Johnny's wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) to get upset and throw a tantrum. When Johnny attempts to check on her, Vivian screams at him, telling him that she's sick of him wasting his time with a couple of no-talent mechanics, hammering the point home by throwing an eviction notice in his face. The next day, Johnny catches up with the recording studio's soundman, famed record producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). Though doubtful of another wannabe, Phillips is taken by Johnny's enthusiasm and offers him an audition. Showing up at the studio dressed in black ("You look like you're going to a funeral," Vivian tells him. Johnny's reply: "Maybe I am."), Johnny and his band start into the same hokey gospel song they rehearsed earlier. Sam is clearly unimpressed, to the point that he stops the trio and tells them to leave because it's nothing he hasn't heard before. Johnny takes offense, thinking that the complaints are instead questioning his religious faith, but Sam says that he merely thinks that Johnny just has a mediocre way of showing it. He asks them what they would sing if they were hit by a truck and had one song to perform for God before they died, and after a few moments, Johnny comes up with a song. He launches into a song that will one day gain fame as "Folsom Prison Blues," and despite Marshall and Luther being concerned because they hadn't practiced the song, Sam is impressed and signs them to a contract.
Billed as "Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two," the trio of musicians go on tour with other Sun Records artists like Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), and Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice). But of all the performers on the tour, perhaps the most notable is June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whom Johnny has had a crush on his entire life. Stardom and life on the road soon becomes too stressful for Johnny, leading him to alcoholism and an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates. As his addictions escalate, so does his affection for June. Despite her initial refusal to even consider a relationship with him because he's married with children and she's recently divorced, Johnny still carries a torch for her, to the point that he hangs pictures of them together in his den. Already jealous of his popularity with the ladies, Vivian decides this is the straw that broke the camel's back and puts a kibosh on their crumbling marriage.
His unrequited love for June pushes Johnny deeper into addiction, and he finally hits rock bottom when he ends up sharing a ratty apartment with fellow drug-addicted musician Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings). Desperate to speak to June despite having his phone disconnected, the very wasted Johnny walks on foot to her house, a good twenty miles away. June refuses to talk to him while he's hopped up, not letting him anywhere past the front yard before making him go home. He eventually leaves, stumbling home in the rain before passing out by the side of the road. When he wakes up the following morning, he discovers himself outside a beautiful lakefront mansion, immediately asking if it's for sale. He buys the house, bringing his family and the Carter family together for Thanksgiving shortly thereafter. Johnny's father is less than impressed, commenting that his son probably shouldn't be leaving his expensive tractor stuck in the mud outside. That comment is the straw that broke the camel's back and the very high Johnny flips out, venting the pent-up anger towards his father that had been building since Jack died. Ray quickly retorts that being rich and famous doesn't change the fact that Johnny is an alcoholic and a junkie, and Johnny storms out. He heads straight for the tractor. While he succeeds in getting it out of the mud, he ends up crashing it into the lake. June rushes to his side, diving in and pulling him to shore, starting a chain of events that leads to his recovery. The movie concludes in 1968, as the clean and sober Johnny performs his legendary concert at Folsom State Prison, and June accepts his marriage proposal.
I'll admit that although I had a great respect for him and his body of work, I wasn't exactly a Johnny Cash devotee prior to seeing Walk The Line. But the thing is, you don't need to be a fan of Cash (or of country music, for that matter) to appreciate the movie. Director James Mangold has crafted a wonderful movie that very rarely dips into the realm of hero worship, instead wisely focusing on the music and the love story. Co-scripted by Mangold and Gill Dennis, the movie seems to gloss over certain parts of Cash's life, yet still tells a compelling, engaging story. Cash is depicted not as a heroic figure, but as a flawed yet noble human being stuck in the mire of substance abuse. His alcoholism and drug use are a focal point in developing the love story, as he is ultimately saved not a desire to overcome his demons, but by the love of his soulmate. This is most evidenced in the scene where a wasted Johnny tries to pull the tractor out of the mud and falls into the lake. He didn't look like he was in any hurry to save himself, but it was June that pulled him out. I'm of the opinion that the scene is symbolic of the couple's entire relationship. Johnny was drowning in his addictions, until June pulled him out.
In a movie about a legendary musician, the music can make or break it. That said, I loved every bit of the music in Walk The Line. From T-Bone Burnett's twangy, country-infused score to the numerous songs, the soundtrack is just as entertaining as the movie itself. The stars lend their own singing voices to the movie, and sound uncannily like the musicians they're portraying. Speaking of the cast, both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are nothing short of astonishing. The two have a great chemistry that is needed for a movie such as this, and their performances were amazing. While I immensely enjoyed Phoenix's cocky yet sympathetic performance, I enjoyed Witherspoon's a lot more. Given that her recent movies have mostly been fluff (would you expect to be taken seriously when you're doing movies like Legally Blonde 2 and Just Like Heaven?), it's my belief that this just may be the best performance of her career. Thanks to Witherspoon, it's not hard to understand why Johnny fell in love with June in the first place. She is engaging and incredibly likeable, and very deserving of all the praise she gets. The rest of the cast is nothing to sneeze at either, especially Robert Patrick as Johnny's harshly critical father.
Johnny Cash's voice was often described as being "steady like a train, sharp like a razor." That's the best description I can give Walk The Line. The movie never drags, and manages to tell a consistent story without coming off as just a series of moments strung together. It is my sincere hope that Walk The Line will add to the legacy of Johnny Cash, as Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon have made a film that is absolutely stunning on all fronts. The movie is a fitting tribute to the Man In Black and the woman in his heart, and as a well-acted, well-made film, I'll give Walk The Line the full five stars.
Final Rating: *****