Love and Music
Mixing music and romance, Walk the Line emerges as a surefire crowd pleaser. Joaquin Phoenix channels the iconic Johnny Cash here, and Reese Witherspoon oozes spunk and charm as June Carter Cash. Although I'm not a fan of the biopic genre, this celebration of Cash's unique musical talent and the compelling Cash/Carter love story almost made me change my mind.
Phoenix (The Village) and Witherspoon (Just Like Heaven), who both do their own singing, capture the playful essence of Johnny and June as they banter back and forth on stage. Although the voices of these co-stars are not perfect, that’s no problem. I remember hearing off-notes from the two real-life performers as well, and besides, it was their charisma that drew me in as much as their music. Happily, Phoenix and Witherspoon project that same quality.
Director James Mangold (Kate and Leopold) decided to focus on the largely unknown part of Cash’s story, which covers the time from his impoverished boyhood to his rising stardom before falling from grace and then reinventing himself into the legend we know today. “This is a story very few people know,” Mangold declares. “Young John and his peers were pioneers struggling to find their way. What does it mean to be a rock star when no one has lived that life before you? What do you do with all the attention? How do you handle the pressure, the money, the fans, the demands?”
Unfortunately, by going in this direction, Walk the Line left me with a frustration similar to what I felt after seeing Ray last year. The two movies dwell too much on “personal demons” and end without covering the final years and some of the best music of the artists’ careers. How I’d love to see more spirited Cash/Carter duets as performed by Phoenix and Witherspoon! Their wonderful musical numbers make this biopic something special. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Moonlight Mile) placed cameras on stage with the performers, so we see the singers up close and personal, instead of from the traditional audience viewpoint. And famed musician T Bone Burnett’s (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) practice recording sessions with Phoenix and Witherspoon really paid off. “It was a smart thing to do,” Burnett insists, “because both Joaquin and Reese are extremely intuitive and quick, so by hearing themselves over and over they were able to react to that and get a chance to really evolve. The learning curve was amazing to watch.”
Phoenix’s singing resembles Cash’s hard-pounding vocal force, especially when the actor goes for those lower notes; Witherspoon imbues her songs with June’s upbeat attitude -- she’s perky, sassy and funny. Although both do a fine job in their solos, it’s their duets like “Jackson” that shoot off musical fireworks.
Speaking of fireworks, the Cash/Carter true-life romance also contained emotional explosions (June’s lyrics to “Ring of Fire” refer to the couple’s incendiary feelings), and Walk the Line deals with this aspect of their personal relationship quite effectively. When Johnny and June first met, both were married to other people. Mangold points out that for ten years their intimacy existed almost only on stage. “It took them a long time to be able to take that on-stage connection and pull it into their off-stage lives,” he says.
In addition to other marriages standing in the way, John’s substance abuse angered June, who finally helped him get clean and sober. Johnny and June’s love story plays out movingly in Walk the Line. “There’s something special about finding someone who is both your soul mate and your best friend,” Witherspoon observes. “I think from the moment June gets caught in John’s guitar strap, there’s a profound connection between them.”
By capitalizing on that connection, Walk the Line establishes a special bond with viewers and will probably show up on more than a few best-of-year lists.
(Released by Fox 2000 Pictures and rated “PG-13” for some language.)