Walk The Line

Condensing something as vast and complex as the life of a person into a film is often a daunting task. With so many events that comprise the span of an individual, knowing what to cover and what to omit is a daunting task for any writer. For an icon like Johnny Cash, this task becomes monumental as not only does the history and humanity of the individual need to be captured, but the very soul of the artist as well.

Thankfully in the film Walk the Line Writer Gil Dennis and Writer/Director James Mangold capture the very essence of The Man in Black. Unlike many biopics that focus on the rise and fall of an individual, Walk the Line strives to balance than man and his demons without losing the compassion of the character.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, a man who rose from poverty in Dyess Arkansas to become on of the most beloved and enduring entertainers in history. Chronicling portions of his childhood, and the hardships he endured as well as his sting in the Air Force, we are shown things that helped shape the man he was to become. Shortly after his Air Force career, Johnny marries Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), and they start a family. Struggling to make ends meet as a door to door salesman, and facing pressure to take a job with her father in San Antonio Johnny manages to gain an audition for Sun Records in Nashville.

When told in the audition that his Gospel songs will not sell, Johnny instead performs one of his own compositions and earns a record contract. Before long, he and his band are on the road playing with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). June who has been part of a singing family

as well as an object of admiration for Johnny since their childhoods soon becomes a friend to Johnny as he copes with rising fame and the pressures and temptations of life on the road.

As Johnny spends more and more time on the road, tensions between him and Vivian grow causing Johnny to delve deeper into the temptations that are available to him as a star. During this time, Johhny becomes obsessed with June, who wile attracted to Johnny has just come from a failed marriage and does not want to break up Johnny’s family. It is against this backdrop that the unusual courtship between the two begins. They spend time with one another on the road, they talk for hours on end, and even perform duets with one another on stage, yet Johnny’s love for June remains a source of frustration that only leads him deeper into his destructive behaviors.

While the addition that grips Johnny is a driving part of the film, the main focus of the story is the love between Johnny and June and their unusual courtship that survived despite marriages, addictions, denials, and their own insecurities. Phoenix and Witherspoon are amazing and give Oscar Caliber performances that are easily the best in recent years. Not only do they both convey the mannerisms of their flesh and blood counterparts, but they convey solid chemistry and compassion from the audience.

While one can say that Johnny was an adulterer and a drug addict, his gentle nature, compassion, and humanity are abundantly clear in the way he is portrayed by Phoenix. We do not see Cash as a stuck up rock star, we see him as a simple human being, who used his gifts to connect with the masses yet never lost site of his heart. His tenderness, honesty, and devotion to his music, June, and eventually himself are clear and Phoenix is able to portray this by a reserved and endearing manner that captures the man he is portraying. Far too many films of this type are loaded with scenes of conflict, screaming, conflict and destruction that it was refreshing to see Johnny attempt to win June by stubbornness, and persistence yet never losing his easy going mannerisms despite being wracked by addiction.

Much has been made of the decision to let Phoenix and Witherspoon sing their parts rather than dub the voices. Unlike in the film “Ray” where Jaime Foxx had his singing dubbed over, the accurate and heartfelt interpretations of the songs only underscores the triumph and complexity of their performances.

Not just a good film but a great film, Walk the Line is an endearing and entertaining film that keeps you engrossed from start to finish. If you are not a fan of Johnny Cash when you see this film, at the least you will find a new found respect for this American Legend.

5 stars out of 5