Michael Jackson got me to thinking. A few years ago, when Britney Spears wished him a happy birthday on the MTV Video Music Awards, and he offered an uninvited, unnecessary, and mortifyingly delusional acceptance speech for the imaginary “Artist of the Millennium” award, I started wondering who would truly deserve such an honor. (It’s a fun game and a great conversation starter — try it with your friends!) A lot of people might suggest Elvis, but I’d never had any emotional connection to his music, so he wasn’t an option for me. Maybe the Beatles, if one were to extend “artist” to include bands; others, depending upon their tastes, might prefer Bob Dylan or John Coltrane or Billie Holiday or Patti Smith. But for me there was only one real possibility. In his plainspoken emotion, his ability to connect with a listener, his hard-won understanding of human weakness and strength, his excursions into and ongoing influence on a wide range of musical styles, his nearly five decades of excellence and relevance, no one compares — in my mind, at least — with Johnny Cash.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Walk the Line. I was prepared for the mythologizing that always occurs with celebrity biopics — the offense is less egregious anyway when the subject is someone like Cash, who already seemed as much legend as flesh even while he was alive. But would the film do justice to our memories of Cash and his wife June Carter Cash? Would Joaquin Phoenix deliver an impressive but ultimately shallow impersonation, like Jamie Foxx in Ray? Would Reese Witherspoon’s June be inappropriately reminiscent of Elle Woods? The early trailers weren’t promising, with Phoenix seeming affected and far out of his depth, and the story looking overblown and melodramatic. But in many ways the film turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
Phoenix’s performance has flaws, to be sure, but his approach is the right one. He builds the character from the inside out, understanding the man and letting the voice and manner develop from that (the opposite of Foxx’s approach to playing Ray Charles). His performance creates a convincing, layered character, but it doesn’t always square with our memories of Cash. Phoenix is more handsome than Cash but not as tall or commanding, and his natural voice isn’t Cash’s rich baritone, but he reaches into his lower register and finds the right quality, the purring resonance that made it seem Cash’s chest had been fitted with a sounding board. His manner, too, has a satisfyingly Cash-like intensity, softened by an appropriate dry wit. The resemblance builds gradually through the course of the film — even Johnny Cash wasn’t born Johnny Cash — and over time we see the voice deepening and taking on its characteristic tone, the manner developing from that of a callow youth into that of the dour, world-weary Man in Black. Though we’re always aware that we’re watching Phoenix, now and then, sometimes onstage and sometimes in quiet moments with June, his voice will hit just the right tone or his face will be lit in just the right way, and he seems to become Cash by sheer force of will.
The film’s opening is great — we hear a deep, pulsing beat as a series of tracking shots begins outside Folsom Prison and works its way into the building, down hallways, and finally into the prison cafeteria, where we see the source of that beat: the stamping feet of the inmates. The camera then moves into the prison’s woodshop, which serves as a makeshift green room. Cash is there, contemplating the menacing teeth of a circular saw, a sight that evokes the first of a series of flashbacks that make up the bulk of the story. We follow Cash from his childhood on an east Arkansas farm to his days in the Air Force; his first marriage and early music career; tours with Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (the wonderfully devilish Waylon Malloy Payne), and Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice); meeting June Carter; descent into amphetamine addiction (via his friendship with Elvis, naturally); and his eventual recovery, with June’s help, and their marriage. The screenwriters, Gill Dennis and James Mangold, have dramatized the central events of Cash’s life, compressing time and taking the usual liberties with the facts to give the story a more dramatic arc, but they haven’t found any way to make them new. There are, of course, certain limits to what they can do to make Cash’s story different — it’s not their fault that he and Ray Charles both had brothers who died in childhood accidents, for instance — but so much is handled in a standard way; indeed various scenes inevitably recall Ray, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sweet Dreams, and other films about musicians of Cash’s generation.
Mangold also directed, and in that role his instincts are surer. His feeling for time and place is a great strength; he brings out the desperate beauty of the flatlands of east Arkansas — where young Cash and his doomed brother, crossing a field, look like boys out of a Winslow Homer painting — and the dry dinginess of Memphis storefronts and porches. His presentation of the period doesn’t make it seem unduly distant or quaint, and he doesn’t condescend to the characters, most of whom were raised poor in the South and have minimal education. But perhaps the best thing that can be said of his direction is that he does right by Cash’s talent. Unlike Taylor Hackford, he has enough sense to get out of the way of the music — we get to hear Cash and Carter’s songs, and some by Elvis, Lewis, and Orbison (all the actors do their own singing), and we get some small sense of the energy and excitement in the room when those legends performed. And, though we only rarely hear a song from start to finish, they don’t feel unduly truncated; we come in near enough to the end that they’re allowed their natural conclusion, or we continue to hear them in the background during dialogue. Mangold knows that much of the drama of Cash’s story is best conveyed through his own songs, and he makes Walk the Line almost a concert film; whenever he can, he develops the plot onstage or in the wings — when Cash responds to something in life that moves him, he does it by writing a song; when he wants to get closer to June, he drags her out for a duet.
As June, Reese Witherspoon has the benefit — rare among actors playing Southerners — of actually being from the South and understanding how to play the role without caricaturing it. Her accent is conspicuous but not exaggerated — indeed all the Southern accents in the film are believable — and her feistiness serves her well. She doesn’t look like June Carter, and her singing voice, though surprisingly good, doesn’t sound much like June’s, but she’s convincing as a smart, strong-willed, but also vulnerable woman of her time and place, and her complex, ambivalent feelings about both Cash and her own talents are moving. She’s torn between the pull of her heart and the common sense that tells her to stay away, that he’s more trouble than he’s worth. We know, of course, that they’ll eventually overcome the obstacles to their relationship — both were married when they first met, and his drugging and drinking made him erratic and emotionally unstable — and at times Witherspoon can be too opaque, her leanings too difficult to make out, but her gravity and the chemistry she has with Phoenix give us enough at stake that we become involved.
Their love was a genuine and lasting one — though the loss was great, it made poetic sense when he died only a few months after her; it even seemed a mercy — but it’s a deficit of the film that this is almost its sole focus. Little attention is given to his first wife Viv (Memphis native Ginnifer Goodwin), aside from setting her up as an unfairly demanding but rightfully jealous woman scorned, and we understand little about Cash’s relationship with their four daughters. And there’s only a hint of Cash’s lifelong agitation for social justice — while he was courting June, he also recorded a concept album about the plight of Native Americans and alienated much of the country-music establishment with his public statements about the Vietnam War and race relations. We get hints of his activism in scenes with record company executives and others from the concert at Folsom Prison, but this facet of his character, like all other aspects of his life, is subordinated to the romance. I suppose this treatment may be necessary to get a major Hollywood studio behind a movie about a dead country-music star, but it’s a disservice to the real complexity of the man. It may be that there’s no way to get the support and funding necessary to make a film that would really engage with all the contradictory aspects of a figure like Cash, but he’d be a hell of a good subject to try it with.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()