The last time Judge Brett Cullum walked the line, it cost him $390 and 96 hours of community service.
June Carter: You wear black 'cause you can't find anything else to wear, you found your sound 'cause you cant play no better, and you just tried to kiss me 'cause it just happened? You should try taking credit for something every once in a while.
I was so angry when I found out Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) had been tapped to play Johnny Cash. I've been wearing nothing but black my entire life, and I purposefully sing in the same deep baritone Cash used his entire career. I slay every karaoke club with my stellar rendition of "Ring of Fire." If I was ever going to be cast in a biopic, this was my one chance. Yet director James Mangold (Identity) would never return my endless calls to his office. He had me banned from the studio lot at one point. And then the Folsom Prison warden had the gall to tell me I couldn't play there even if I was a convict. Damn Joaquin Phoenix, damn him to hell. So I had a grudge going in to this film, and unless he convinces me otherwise I am prepared to kick his ass. When you least expect it Joaquin, expect it.
Facts of the Case
Walk the Line tells the story of the struggle for the "Man in Black" to become who he was. The film recalls a tragic accident that killed his brother, his stint as a door-to-door salesman, and a fateful recording session at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips. But more poignantly, Walk the Line chronicles the love that made Johnny Cash who he was. The centerpiece of the film is the early romance between Cash and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde). The film quickly glosses over Johnny's early life as a sharecropper in Arkansas, skimps a little on his rise to the top, and then concentrates on a thirteen-year span between 1955 and 1968. It ends with his marriage to June Carter, and doesn't go any farther. Reese walked away with an Oscar for her part in the film, and Joaquin Phoenix was nominated. He took home a Golden Globe, as did Reese. The movie is your standard biopic recreating famous incidents, brushes with fame, problems with drugs, and the redemption that finally leads to stardom. What makes it unique are the two stars.
Why does the Academy Award almost always seem to end up going to actors who do well in biographies? It's almost as if we have a yardstick to measure their performances, and can discern how well they immerse themselves in a part. The movies are written by the lives our legends live, and we all have some familiarity with the material even if it's just recognizing a few tunes here and there. It's a trend not likely to disappear, and I have fun imagining somebody like Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) accepting her Best Actress statue in twenty years for playing Madonna or Britney Spears. And we'll all marvel at how she did her own lip-synching.
Much has been made about how Phoenix and Witherspoon did their own singing in Walk the Line. It's not anything new to musical biopics, and I recall Gary Busey doing the same sort of thing when he took on the title role in The Buddy Holly Story. What's amazing is Reese and Joaquin weren't really known as singers even in the slightest. Phoenix began working on his performance in 2001, slaving over guitars and vocals for years before filming Walk the Line. Witherspoon jokes in interviews how she drove her kids crazy singing them to sleep with June Carter Cash's catalog of songs. The film hinges on them being able to perform, since more than half of it seems to take place on various stages during endless tours. They both do an incredible job of recreating the musical numbers, and certainly this factored in to their recognition during the 2005 awards season.
The acting from the two leads is even more impeccable than the singing. Phoenix loses himself entirely to become Johnny Cash. He's hardly recognizable as he contorts his face in to the trademark sneers and glares of the rebellious "Man in Black." Johnny was a self-destructive mess, and the actor captures the slurred speech of a man caught in his own demons of pills, liquor, and self-loathing well. I often wonder if the actor was mining some personal demons from losing his own brother, River Phoenix (My Own Private Idaho), while creating his portrait of Cash, who had a similar experience. Reese takes a different approach, delivering her own persona and meshing that with June Carter. She's more sunshine than the real person, but convinces us of her love for the rebel. In the end, it's hard to say who delivered a more stellar performance. Together they both are magical—as he gives her edge, and she lightens up his darkness. They are like yin and yang merging together to make an unbeatable team. Walk the Line really sings when the two actors are together; their chemistry is undeniable. It is much like witnessing the true life Johnny and June in that respect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you notice, despite a slew of other nods from Oscar, Walk the Line was omitted from the Best Picture category. Truth is, it's a "B" picture with "A" acting. It follows the genre rules for a biopic—episodic scenes, watered down issues, the daddy who didn't love me, and too-neat resolutions. Most of the film is accurate, but I detected some cinematic fudging now and then to make things more logical or have greater impact. John Stewart teased during the Oscar 2005 telecast "It's Ray with white people!," and though the comment seems crass it rings true. There's nothing here a mini-series like the one on Elvis didn't do on broadcast television.
The visual transfer of the disc is poppy and bright. Colors are well saturated, and almost hyper-real. They don't bleed, and Walk the Line has an impressive look on DVD. The audio mixes are solid and even more well delivered than the visual treatment. The DTS track provides the biggest frequency range, but the surround mix is equally well thought out. Sometimes the bass gets heavy, but I've never heard Cash's songs sound so full and rich. It's a real treat to hear these songs coming out of your entire living room or home theatre. It's like they are being reborn for a new age which is something you look forward to when they do a project like this.
Fox is releasing several versions of Walk the Line. The widescreen edition simply has deleted scenes and a director's commentary from Jim Mangold. The commentary is reverent, conveying Mangold's passion for the project. He even reads from his own script at certain points. The ten deleted scenes show you a lot of bits cut from Cash's early rise to fame. There's also a fullscreen edition with the same extras, if you prefer the pan and scan cropping. And then there's the deluxe two-disc set, with better artwork and a healthier dose of extras, including extended performance sequences. A separate review of that edition can be found on DVD Verdict as well.
Excellent performances are the reason to check out Walk the Line. Both the acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon elevates the movie to a stellar entry in the biopic genre. Still, the movie doesn't do much other than exploit the conventions of the genre. In the end that's just fine, because we came to see the story and hear the music of John and June.
Guilty of passing me over for the role of Johnny Cash. Yet the court can find no fault with the fine performances here, so I guess I'll just have to settle. But anyone planning a Hank Williams Jr. feature, I'm ready and reachable here.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Director James Mangold
Review content copyright © 2006 Brett Cullum; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.