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On Nov. 18, 2005, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line in theaters. The film went on to earn five Oscar nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, winning one for Reese Witherspoon in the best actress category. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
TORONTO — Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon give strong acting and singing performances in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Playing the legendary Man in Black, Phoenix displays a surprisingly good voice and the ability to imitate Johnny’s deep bass. As his second wife, singer June Carter, Witherspoon delivers a knockout performance as a woman who must temper her passion with an unwillingness to witness her man’s self-destruction.
James Mangold’s movie, too, has its rewards as it manages to skirt many of the usual dangers of any truthful look at a legend, especially a musical one. Like last year’s Ray, the chosen path is a conventional one, but it does yield an emotionally satisfying story of a man who battled many devils to claim a life of artistic and personal achievement.
Given the late singer’s huge influence on music — on folk, rock, country and punk — and the smoothness of this particular production, it’s hard to see why there won’t be long lines at box offices for Walk the Line.
Phoenix has never been the most expressive of actors, but that works just fine for Johnny Cash. A shy man who cultivated an outlaw image and sang of hard-luck lives in hard-living songs, he took the stage with a stony face and a guitar aimed at the audience. Phoenix doesn’t look much like Johnny, but he gets his stage persona.
Witherspoon gets the humor and honesty as well as the resonant voice of the scrappy performing daughter of country music’s first family. June falls for Johnny, but Johnny’s first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), June’s own second marriage and Johnny’s increasing dependence on drugs and booze kept her at arm’s length for many years.
Gill Dennis and Mangold base their screenplay on two books by Cash, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, as well as interviews with the couple up until their deaths in 2003. The movie follows Johnny’s life from the cotton fields of Arkansas in the 1940s to his celebrated performance at Folsom Prison in 1968, which produced a best-selling live album. That span includes his pill-popping and groupie-cuddling days but stops before his born-again conversion in the 1970s.
A sawmill accident claims the life of Johnny’s older brother, Jack, whom everyone saw as the “good” brother, the one headed for a life of preaching. Johnny’s mean-spirited father (Robert Patrick) even declared that the devil “took the wrong son,” thus insuring a lifetime of guilt and pain for Johnny.
The movie rushes through his Army service, first marriage and failed jobs to get to the fateful moment when Johnny walks through the door of Sun Studios in Memphis in 1955 and presents himself to producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). The audition with his band — guitarist Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) — goes badly until Phillips suggests Johnny do a song from the heart. One of his old tunes from his Army days does the trick, and soon he’s touring with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and the sassy June Carter.
The movie concentrates on the blossoming relationship — it was hardly a romance, at least not at first — between Johnny and June. The movie establishes a strong and enduring friendship between these two, although Johnny’s lingering looks are a clear sign he hopes for more. Following June’s divorce, Johnny makes romantic overtures but, according to the movie, June manages to resist for nearly a decade. Johnny does persuade June to work and tour with him, though, which leaves wife Vivian to draw her own conclusions.
Walk the Line — a title drawn from Johnny’s song about the difficulties of avoiding temptation while married — is essentially a romance about a couple who are alone together only onstage. The two clearly are soul mates, but much stands between them including Johnny’s equally passionate attraction to amphetamines. When June has had enough, Johnny’s life spirals downward with an arrest, separation from his family and financial and health problems.
The decision to approach Johnny’s life as a love story causes Mangold to neglect the development of Johnny’s music. In fact, the movie implies that Johnny falls into his musical style and personality without giving it much thought. Despite the accomplished vocal work by Phoenix and Witherspoon, the film doesn’t give us nearly enough of these two people as musicians.
The production is solid other than the fact that no one ages a bit. Photographed by Phedon Papamichael and edited by Michael McCusker, the concert footage is fine and energetic, while the leaps in time never feel jarring. All period details are accomplished without fuss. T-Bone Burnett expertly handles not only the score but also production of all the film’s music. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Sept. 15, 2005
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