The Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line is less a booze ‘n’ Benzedrine showbiz inspirational—although there is plenty of that—than a love story. A few hotel rooms get trashed; the Man in Black is busted and, ultimately, re-hah-bilitated. But it’s not success, kicks, or salvation that Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) pursues so much as a lifelong yen for fellow country musician June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).
Directed by James Mangold from a script co-written with Gill Dennis, Walk the Line is an epic weepie, filled with signs and portents, as well as music. Even more than its subject, the movie may look mean but it walks the straight and narrow—with every one of Cash’s greatest hits cued by a biographical event, usually reflecting the current state of his relationship with June. Given this ability to reconcile at least some of Cash’s contradictions, Walk the Line seems likely to strike a responsive chord.
Cash may have been a lesser artist than his near exact contemporary and fellow great American Ray Charles—whose 2004 Oscar-worthy Hollywoodization Ray provides Walk the Line‘s probable model and inescapable parallel—but he was arguably the greater icon. RC was a musical genius; JC’s genius is manifest in the pitch-perfect Righteous Outlaw–ism of his 1968 concept album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. (Not exactly Sgt. Pepper’s but, as we now know, not exactly a “live” document either.) Fittingly, Walk the Line begins with a rising ka-chunk ka-chunk vamp as Cash prepares to make his Folsom entrance. He flashes back to memories of his Arkansas childhood on the WPA agricultural cooperative Dyess Colony, recalling the voice of 10-year-old June, the Carter Family ingenue, wafting out of the radio.
An extremely leisurely script takes 136 minutes to hit the high points: the accidental death of Cash’s brother (a childhood trauma shared with RC); the hero’s induction into the army (where he has another premonition of June, watches the 1951 B movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and writes “Folsom Prison Blues” line by line); his audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records (for which he first dresses in black); his riotous tour with Sun’s star rockabillies Jerry Lee Lewis (an amusingly fey interpretation by Waylon Malloy Payne) and Elvis Presley (a totally wired Tyler Hilton); and finally, June flitting adorably through the proceedings.
Phoenix’s skillful, focused, and essentially self-effacing performance is predicated on a Kabuki-like control of certain evocative expressions and body language. Somewhat showier, Witherspoon’s June is a big-haired Kewpie doll with an iron will and a syncopated sashay. Where the first Mrs. Cash (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bourgeois shrew, June immediately sees Johnny’s sensitive side, as well as his talent, and turns him on to The Prophet—something he was still talking about 40 years later. Alternately wholesome and tortuous, their prolonged courtship is largely played out onstage. It’s a marriage made in show business heaven, and in the movie (as in life?), their duets—apparently filmed before an actual audience—provide most of the chemistry.
But what chemistry created Johnny Cash? Seconding the illuminating obit Tom Smucker wrote in the Voice, I’d hazard Cash’s childhood on a New Deal (and not inconsequentially, all-white) kolkhoz had something to do with his social values—and maybe even musical ones. Did the Almanac Singers or Woody Guthrie ever play Dyess Colony? A Bible-schooled folkie, Bob Dylan’s spiritual half brother, Cash projected a unique aura—and we’d need something like Martin Scorsese’s Dylan doc to capture it. At once dangerous and benign, working-class hero and gospel Christian, bleeding heart and good ol’ boy, at home on Hee Haw and in Hootenanny Hoot, part Elvis and part John Wayne and far more likable than either, Cash was and remains a rich, fascinating, self- invented character—which kind of leaves his impersonator out in the cold.
The fact is that neither Walk the Line nor the even more tedious Ray exerts nearly the fascination of last year’s Beyond the Sea, an obviously bad movie about a limited performer of minor cultural significance and yet a weirdly compelling psychodrama, allowing director-star Kevin Spacey to match Bobby Darin’s patented insincerity with his own. In no way obsessive, Walk the Line is more sincerely—which is to say, more boringly—sincere. It doesn’t leave you with much to think about, except maybe the empty vibrato of effective ventriloquism.