For a long time, the Hollywood biopic was a corny, synthetic, quasi-reputable genre. Recently, though, warts-and-all movies like Ray and Kinsey and Capote, which have had the daring to show how their subjects’ human failings were integral to their greatness, have raised the bar for biopics — for their authenticity and dramatic power. Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as country-music legend Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his muse, singing partner, and stubborn romantic foil June Carter, is a big, juicy, enjoyable wide-canvas biography with a handful of indelible moments, but it’s just compelling enough to make you wish that it had attained the level of artistry of those other films.
That said, I can’t stop thinking about scenes like the one in which Cash, as a young singer in Memphis in the mid-’50s, enters the storefront that houses Sun Records and performs a gospel standard for Sam Phillips (played with sly feelers by Dallas Roberts), who dismisses the number as treacle. He then asks Cash: If you had an accident, were dying on the road, and had to sing one song to express how you felt about life, what would it be? With nothing to lose, Cash launches into ”Folsom Prison Blues,” and suddenly we hear the famous gravity — the ominous lyrics and weirdly overdeliberate bass voice that sounds like it’s trying to negotiate its way out of hell. As the band trickles in, Cash’s thrilling rockabilly freight train leaves the station.
Phoenix, who did all his own singing, sounds just enough like Cash to make us hear the beauty of his husky reticence, and though he’s hardly the singer’s physical double — Cash had his trademark crags and furrows even when he was starting out — we can see how nature equipped him to play the Man in Black. His hair is black, his eyebrows are black, and, more than that, his eyes are black — deep coal wells of hidden sorrow. Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold (Cop Land) from a script he co-wrote with Gill Dennis, lays out Cash’s demons in a vigorous if standard fashion. Growing up on a farm in Arkansas, young J.R. endures a stern father (Robert Patrick) who makes him feel responsible for his brother’s death. Overseas, in the Air Force, he develops an identification with criminals, and Phoenix cultivates a haunted stare that masks a heart of vulnerability. Later, touring with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis (Cash may be showcased as country, but it’s a revelation to see how much of a vintage early rocker he really was), Cash, holding his guitar up high as if it were a shield, and then staring the audience down, expiates his sins through music. He could be a preacher whose sermons have gone electric.
As a portrait of Johnny Cash the gravel-voiced country-rock innovator, who projected a private hellfire onto even his jauntiest anthems, Walk the Line is zesty and satisfying. But when it turns to the tale of how Cash, trapped in a miserable marriage, spent year after year courting, seducing, loving, yet never quite winning June Carter, the movie is on shakier ground. On the road, Cash enjoys groupies and pops amphetamines, an addiction that will land him in trouble with the law. Yet he’s really a gentle soul who yearns to be loved. He and Carter begin to make eyes at each other the moment they meet backstage, and when Carter’s first marriage ends, there appears to be little in the way of their getting together. But Carter, the scion of a famously traditional Christian singing family, feels guilty about her divorce, and Cash, after coercing her into performing a duet she wrote with her ex-husband, makes the mistake of giving her an onstage peck on the cheek. Horrors!
It’s a downhill spiral from there. Walk the Line could turn out to be a monster chick flick, because its design is almost mythic: Saintly girl has to wait for country-rock bad boy to purge his demons and settle down. But while Witherspoon, a fine singer herself, makes Carter immensely likable, a fountain of warmth and cheer, given how sweetly she meshes with Phoe-nix her romantic reticence isn’t really filled in. June’s refusal to countenance Johnny’s drug use may be a fair obstacle, but the main reason he’s doing drugs is that she keeps spurning him; he’s numbing the pain of his devotion. June is made to seem like a high school virgin protecting her honor, and when we see her composing the lyrics to ”Ring of Fire,” it doesn’t compute: As written, this perky, straight-and-narrow woman is the last person on earth who would fall, through love, ”into a burning ring of fire.”
At the famous Folsom Prison concert, Cash performs ”Cocaine Blues,” and Phoenix’s eyes go wild with the pleasure of finally living up to his wrong-side-of-the-law image. Off stage, June beams at him. But do her eyes shine because of his generosity in saluting the humanity of these prisoners, or because of how deep his need is to feel like he’s one of them? In Walk the Line, it’s the former. In a greater movie, it would have been both.
2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix); Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon); Best Costumes; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Mixing