Movie about Johnny Cash doesn’t sway from greatness |

Movie about Johnny Cash doesn’t sway from greatness

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter in director James Mangold's "Walk the Line."

It’s hard for me to deliver my synopsis of “Walk the Line” from a perspective other than that of a longtime Johnny Cash music fanatic.The film could basically take the worst actors to walk not just the line but the earth and present Cash in any manner of central focus, and I would probably still be completely intrigued.So give me a biopic that begins with a scene that generates theater-wall tremors with a stomp from inmates at Folsom Prison as Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) stares whimsically at a saw blade while the drum and bass of one of his bona fide masterpieces booms around him, and I know without a doubt that my blinking will be at a minimum throughout the film’s two-plus hours.According to online movie databases, Cash selected Phoenix to play the star role in the film that was nearly 10 years in the making. Of course, one has to wonder that Phoenix is about five times more attractive than Cash ever was on his most handsome, drug-free days, but that’s what’s great about actors, right?

In addition to sexy, Phoenix captures Cash’s Arkansas drawl, snarled singing lip and, yes, even his deep, unmistakable voice and rumbling intonation.Both Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter, spent six months taking voice lessons and learning to play their subjects’ instruments – Phoenix the guitar and Witherspoon the auto harp – and perform every number in the film themselves.Cash’s voice is not an easy one to convincingly impersonate, especially many times over throughout a feature film. Evidently, Phoenix and Cash had some sort of channeling at work.In September 2003, I was in the computer room of an English school in Prague, Czech Republic, surrounded by American ex-pats when a friend announced that Johnny Cash had just died. While not one soul turned their head, much less averted their eyes from the business of e-mailing after this announcement, I slapped a hand over my mouth and felt like vomiting, and my musical ear went deaf for a couple of days, as if in mourning.

I had never known much about Cash’s life, but, much like prisoners stated in the letters Cash received in “Walk the Line,” the songs from the Man in Black had always spoken to me.I knew that when he hit his 60s and started toying with song covers of bands such as U2 and Nine Inch Nails, Cash’s 120-year-old appearance could be attributed to the many days spent under the influence of chemicals, not to mention that of his tortured soul.So, like other famous artists who fall into the archetyped journey of starting poor and unknown before rocket-launching to sudden fame that is followed by adoration of groupies, drug abuse and a near-end, Cash’s life on film is going to be most appreciated by those who love his music. Even those who don’t know it or who are ambivalent – even those who don’t like his music – will certainly benefit from “Walk the Line.”From a discomforting boyhood rattled by tragic events that burn deeper than Carter’s Ring of Fire to his long-running and sometimes maddening love with Carter to the sad family chapter that fell onto the bad hand of his juggling act, Cash’s life and the portrait conveyed in “Walk the Line” will make anyone think twice the next time they hear a train a comin’ round the bend.

Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or, Colorado

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