The men at Folsom Prison are clapping their hands and stomping their feet in anticipation of Johnny Cash’s (Joaquin Phoenix) highly anticipated performance. But Johnny is in one of the workshops, touching the blade of a saw, remembering.
He and his brother Tommy are young again, working the family’s cotton fields during the Depression in Arkansas, talking together. Tommy wants to be a preacher, and has memorized the Scriptures. Johnny wonders why Tommy is so good, while Tommy praises Johnny’s ability to sing and memorize all the church hymns. When Tommy dies in an accident soon after, life becomes harder for Johnny whose alcoholic father, Ray (Robert Patrick) is very hard on him.
Johnny leaves home to join the Air Force as soon as he can. He is stationed in Germany and buys his first guitar there. When he comes home in 1954 he marries Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and they begin a family in Memphis. He gets a job as a door-to-door salesman and cannot sell a thing. While on his route he comes across Sam Phillips’ (Dallas Roberts) storefront recording studio with the label that launched Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday.) John and his two band members manage to get an audition. But Phillips is not impressed with Johnny’s run-of-the-mill Gospel singing. He doesn’t think Johnny means it and tells him:
“If you was hit by a truck
and you was lyin’ out there in that gutter dying
and you had time to sing one song,
one song thatwould let God know
what you felt about how you spent your time here on
one song that would sum you up,
That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
Johnny takes his advice to heart and the rest is history.
While on tour with other singers who went on to great fame, he meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and is smitten. June is soon divorced from her husband and turns down Johnny’s attention because she doesn’t want the same for him. Meanwhile, Vivian is increasingly unhappy with Johnny who starts to drink and take drugs, ends up in jail for possession, and is seldom home. Eventually, John and June marry (though Johnny, as we know, continued to battle addiction.)
The film has a solid faith theme running through the film, and though both John and June’s first marriages were disappointments on both human and faith levels, we aren’t here to judge, but to take in how they tried to change, grow and make things right. Johnny and June were no saints, but they seemed to try their best. June had more personal insight than John; that was a hard lesson he took years to learn from her.
Walk the Line (read: walk the straight and narrow) is a remarkable film that could have just kept to the contemporary musician’s biopic formula: hardlife, gets into music, descends into alcohol and drugs, is unfaithful and/or faces personal demons, and then recovers in one way or another last year’s Ray, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, Loretta Lynn story where Sissy Spacek sang all the songs, too), Sweet Dreams (1985, Patsy Cline story), etc. I love all these films, but Walk the Line stands out because of the astonishing and intense performances of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.
Their chemistry on stage is beyond convincing and their singing, playing the guitar and auto-harp make it seem like we are watching live performances because they are so authentic. Well, that’s because they are.
As we all know by now, Phoenix and Witherspoon had to take voice lessons and learn to play their instruments for the film and perform in front of live audiences. Not so easy if you listen to their accounts of the making of the film.
And now I cannot imagine what these two golden performers will do for an encore.
If I were an Academy member I would nominate Walk the Line for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Score, and Best Editing and Best Screenplay. It is so obvious that the cast and crew worked very hard on this film. As I watched it, I kept asking myself: howdid they do that? How many hours practicing, working, and so forth, to get a great rendition of “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.”
The only flaw in the film for me is that it is about 20 minutes too long. Other than that, Walk the Line is a solid example of cinema Americana that you won’t want to miss.
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