Live, from Folsom Prison
Johnny Cash is an American legend in himself. His rise to stardom among such talent as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley speaks for itself, even if you haven’t heard his voice. Joaquin Phoenix brought the legend back to life for the actor’s singing debut in “Walk the Line.” From lip curl to low emitting tones, Phoenix nailed Cash’s unforgettable twang for the entire 135 minutes. I knew he was good, but when Phoenix performed “Ring of Fire,” my socks ended up somewhere in the first couple rows.
Not knowing much about June Carter before the film, I don’t exactly know how to compare Reese Witherspoon’s on-screen performance. What I do know though, is that girl has some pipes hidden in her Tennessee heritage that match her southern accent, to well, a T. She played the role of both caretaker and lover exceedingly well, although I must admit the token title line, “Y’all can’t walk no line,” seemed forced and out of character. For the most part however, Witherspoon wore her smile and her humor on her sleeve, just like her character.
As an exception to the new boundary pushing rating rules, “Walk the Line” is a love story with little to no sex. A few suggestions of drunken and drugged debauchery between Cash and his female fans appear in the montage of tours, but no nudity. It was almost refreshing to see Phoenix and Witherspoon fully covered in their one scene in bed, which perhaps added to their emotional love roller-coaster ride.
The film opens with its own finale, Cash’s comeback performance at Folsom Prison, making the meat of the film a solid flashback, starting with the predictable scene of Cash’s childhood. The look on Phoenix’s face as he fingers a table saw blade is more than enough to tell you what happens when the shot switches to his brother. Fortunately, we are spared the actual scene of devastation and only reel in the pain Cash feels from losing his only ally and best friend at home.
The following scenes lead up to Cash’s success, giving us a few insights here and there of where his songs derived. I would assume, and yes I know what that does but I’m going with it anyway, that some people would argue about how director James Mangold treated Cash’s drug habit. One could say it was a large part of the movie and drew away from his fame, talent and love for Carter. However, others could easily argue that Mangold didn’t spend enough footage on the addiction and the legend of Cash was in spite of the drugs. The movie is a love story about a man who happens to be incredibly famous, of course therein adding investment and loyalty to the character, and not a “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” kind of way where the plot is drugs, drugs, drugs, and more drugs. If anything, Mangold capitalizes on his characters previous notoriety and popularity to make a love story more than just a chick-flick.
Mangold works hard to keep the music legends alive, and at the real life Cash’s request in an interview before he died, treats them with affection and integrity, even through the drugs and the women. “Walk the Line” is an American story, not necessarily of a self-made man, but a man who allowed himself to be made. Cash had the ideas, had the talent, but not the discipline. The movie doesn’t treat him like a god, but as someone who made it to legend status through friends and fans. It’s only a movie about a man, and one perspective at that, but a perspective that builds appreciation and perhaps even a little understanding for one of America’s music greats.
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