John R. ‘Johnny’ Cash is one of the biggest figures in the history of popular music and the biopic Walk The Line from director James Mangold (Cop Land (1997) and Girl, Interrupted (1999)) offers all the highs and lows of the most spectacular emotional rollercoaster, with both Johnny Cash’s rise from farmland to stardom, and the twisted love story of Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) put to screen to great effect.
Though dubbed ‘The Man in Black’ because of his clothing, Cash’s moniker had a truth to its dark connotation and the man certainly led an ‘eventful’ life. Biopics and biographical documentaries often either do harm to the idealised image of someone that fans hold, or just paint that idealised image and ignore the truth of the character, but Walk The Line seems to find some way between these ideas. The film paints a picture of a man who had a well-documented addiction to both drugs and alchohol, spent time in prison, and was an adulterer despite being the father of several children. These details are not glossed over and Cash is by no means portrayed as all good, however, for his faults he comes out looking allright. He is almost shown as having the seeds of his downfalls being sown in his childhood, being incredibly affected by both family tragedy and disfunction. And his love for June Carter, which comes across as one of the main reasons for his marriage separation, is shown as being strong within him ever since he would listen in his childhood bedroom to her singing over the radio.
Cash’s love for June Carter comes across as a real and true love, and one which cannot be ignored.
The film doesn’t show Cash’s first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) in too great a light, helping the audience to will ‘JR’ and June together. Vivian comes across like she would never be satisfied, first being unhappy as Cash hasn’t delivered his promise of a nice house and more, but then when he gets a record deal, goes on tour and actually makes enough money for her to have what she wanted, she is then unhappy because as she states she doesn’t get him — which wasn’t good enough for her before. Cash’s love for June Carter in contrast comes across as a real and true love, and one which cannot be ignored. A scene where the couple goes fishing together, though almost playing like a Hollywood cliche reveals how the couple have a much stronger relationship — as best friends, with June filling in for Cash’s brother; and it is only after he reminds her “You’re my best friend” that she finally agrees to marry him. Cash recieves redemption and turns back to the church, also quitting drugs, and June and her, The Carter, Family are fundamental in this, being much more helpful than his own, or specifically his callous and harsh-tongued father. The film charts Cash’s life only up to the end of the 1960s but footnotes at the close support the most romantic notion, that the couple lived happily for the next forty years before dying within three months of each other in 2003.
Both leads step up to the microphone with aplomb and perform impressively.
Cash is an icon, a legend, with countless fans worldwide and when Joaquin Phoenix was the man announced to be taking on his role, some were uncertain. But the serious Phoenix, and co-star Reese Witherspoon, put in very powerful performances, indeed both worthy of their Oscar nominations. And what puts them one step up from last years Oscar-winning acting performance from Jamie Foxx, for his work in the biopic Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) is that throughout the film all of the vocals are actually performed by the stars. Both leads step up to the microphone with aplomb and perform impressively, both in their own right and in mimicking the styles of those that they imitate. As would be expected from a musical biopic, there’s plenty of music with many great Cash favourite’s like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Get Rhythm” and “Ring of Fire”, as well as some great duets between the couple such as “Jackson” and Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and also snippets from the other featured stars like Elvis, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
By no means an idealistic oil-painting, Walk The Line seems to portray a image reflective of the complex nature of The Man in Black, a man who was entertaining yet sometimes all over the place, but deep down full of good and an incredible artist. The film is long at 136 minutes, with high heights and some fairly draining depths, but it is engaging throughout.