Walk the Line: Biopic of Johnny Cash Starring Phoenix and Witherspoon in Oscar Winning Performance

“Walk the Line,” the biopicture of legendary musicians Johnny Cash and June Carter, is the most accomplished and commercial film James Mangold has made to date.

After directing such disappointing fare as “Girl, Interrupted,” “Kate & Leopold,” and “Identity.” Mangold seemed to have found a subject that he’s passionate about and it shows. Though burdened with showbiz clichs, “Walk the Line” seems a more personal film than Mangold’s previous projects.

Johnny Cash picked cotton, worked as a salesman door to door, and served in the Air Force before embarking on a music career. “Walk the Line” captures the essence of Cash as a voice of rebellion that changed the face of Rock N Roll, an outlaw before rebels were born, an icon who produced sensational music for half a century. That he accomplished most of that, despite great odds, before turning 30, is all the more remarkable.

“Walk the Line,” explores the early years of the legendary artist who transcended musical boundaries and touched people all over the world. Nonetheless, while Cash’s songs were changing the music world, his personal world was being rocked by the woman who became the love of his life, June Carter.

Not entirely successful as a biopicture, “Walk the Line” is too conventional, containing too many “big” emotional scenes. Yet, it’s an extremely enjoyable film that grabs attention through the perfromances from the first scene and doesn’t let go to the end.

Elevating the film way above its melodramatic trappings are the winning turns of Joaquin Phoenix who, always dressed in black, looks like the singer, and particularly Reese Witherspoon, who gives a tough performance that represents her most mature and strongest work since “Election.”

As a music biopicture, “Walk the Line” invites comparisons with last year’s “Ray,” the ebullient picture of Ray Charles, and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) about country singer Loretta Lynn.

It may not be a coincidence that both “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Ray” were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and won acting awards for Sissy Spacek and Jamie Foxx, respectively. Whether Phoenix and Witherspoonm who also do their own singing, would land Oscar nominations will depend on the critical and commercial response to movie when it bows theatrically, in November. For now, viewing is restricted to avid attendees of the Telluride Film Festival, where “Walk the Line” received its world premiere over Labor Day Weekend, and Toronto Film Festival, where it plays next week.

Like “Ray,” commercially speaking, “Walk the Line” may benefit from the recent deaths of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Carter died in June 2003, and Cash three months later. The production has been in the works for years, and reportedly, Cash signed off on both Phoenix’s casting and the screenplay before his death. According to producer James Keach, Cash’s son John Carter read the scrip to his father who was having hard time seeing

Like Michael Apted’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the story centers on Cash’s formative years as a singer, between 1955 and 1968. It would have been impossible to depict Cash’s entire life in a two-hour movie without risking shallow treatment. As it is, “Walk the Line” jumps around quite a bit in its effort to cover Cash’s tumultuous childhood, bad first marriage, continuous fight with inner demons, courtship of June Carter, struggle to overcome drug addiction, and above all, coming to terms with guilt and remorse over the death of his older brother, for which his abusive, domineering father had never forgiven him.

“Walk the Lines” suffers from the problems that have plagued most Hollywood biopictures, be they about writers, singers, or actors. The transformation of historical personae into a coherent narrative and engaging dramatic character often calls for a gloss over problems of historical accuracy and causality. Like most Hollywood biopics, “Walk the Line” subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history, the romantic individual who succeeded despite all odds, the one person who made all the difference.

However, “Walk the Line” doesn’t make the mistake of Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” (which featured a miscast Dustin Hoffman), in which Lenny Bruce’s life events become footnotes to his nightclub acts. No, as written and diected, “Walk the Line” presents a balanced view (perhaps too calculatingly balanced) of Cash’s life, on stage and off.

Yet, despite fluent editing and vibrant music, particularly in the second half, “Walk the Line” is the latest of Hollywood’s movies about the one-to-one correlation between an artist’s life and his art.

Like most biopics of struggling artists, “Walk the Line” engages in an unabashed mythmaking of Cash, though, occasionally, it deviates from the borm and presents some harsh and “ugly” facts.

Cash’s life is depicted in lengthy flashbacks that allow the film to catalog important events, both disasters and epiphanies, in his life. The narrative is framed by a prison scene, shown in the beginning and at the end, at the Folsom Prison, in which Cash performs to a most appreciate crowd of inmates.

The story begins in Dyes, Arkansau in 1944, with Johnny and his older brother as children, spending idyllic time by the river. While Johnny is fishing, his brother gets injured and dies in a power-saw accident. Johnny’s father can’t forgive him for his negligence; it’s clear that Johnny’s brother was the favored son. Hysterical, he charges at Johnny, “Youre nothing, nothing.” This becomes the film’s motto and the central motivation guiding Cash’s life, namely, to prove to his father–and to himself–that he is not “nothing.”

The tale then jumps to 1955 and Memphis, Tennessee, where Cash and his band members record a number, only to be told that, “Gospel doesn’t sell.” Cash’s singing is deemed too detached and impersonal. “I don’t believe you,” the manager says, “Let’s bring you home. I want a song that sums you up, that shows that you believe in yourself.”

Meanwhile, back home, his pregnant wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) complains that they can’t make ends meet and that she misses home and her daddy. In due course, Vivian becomes a whining, dissatisfied wife, who drags Johnny down and can’t be supportive even when he becomes successful. The marriage begins to falter, but it continues, strenuously.

The movie’ most engaging scenes are those depicting Cash’s love for June Carter, the singer and auto harpist. Their first encounter backstage, when her dress gets caught in his guitar and she can’t go on stage, is extremely charming. A married woman at the time, with her own family, June is unattainable, which makes her all the more desirable.

The physical attraction is there, and the emotional bond too, yet June rejects Cash’s persistent come-on as long as she can, and even after they consummate their affair, she is reluctant to commit. For a while, the duo perform together, and tour successfully, but then Cash succumbs to booze, drugs, and pills, which endanger his career. After collapsing on stage, he’s sent to the hospital and the tour is cancelled.

“Walk the Line” contains its share of high and low melodrama, public confrontations between a jealous Vivian and June, violent arguments between Vivian and Cash, bursts of hysteria when Cash hangs up photographs of June on his wall, and so on.

The story’s most exuberant scene comes toward the end, when Cash proposes to Carter on stage in a January 1968 concert in Ontario, Canada. Interrupting their joint singing, Cash forces her to consent, while the entire audience is rooting for them.

Throughout the movie, we eagerly wait for Cash to perform his greatest hits, “Walk the Ling,” “Ring and Fire,” “Jackson,” and sure enough, when the songs are performed, the movie reaches its joyous epiphanies.

I can only speculate on how Joaquin Phoenix must have felt while playing his scenes with his emotionally harsh father over the untimely death of his older brother, since Joaquin himself had lost his brother, actor River Phoenix, who died in 1993 of drug overdose.

“Walk the Line” is the first Hollywood picture in which Joaquin plays the lead and he is both impressive and commanding. The revelation, however, is Reese Witherspoon, who renders her most nuanced performance since Election,” in which she played an irrepressibly ambitious high-schooler. Witherspoon was misdirected in “Vanity Fair,” Mira Nair’s adaptation of the classic novel, and s a result gave a lightweight performance.

However, June Carter is a rich role that allows Witherspoon to reveal her multi-faceted persona as an actress. She leaves behind her the cute-smart image cultivated in “Legally Blonde” and other comedies, and rises to the occasion with a turn that’s nothing short of brilliant, for which she should earn an Oscar nomination.