WALK THE LINE does a good job telling—not all, but some crucial parts of—what amounts to the nearly folkloric Johnny Cash Story, particularly centering on his self-destructive spiral, rescued thanks to his love for and the love from another down-home Americana treasure, a sweet and spunky gal name’a June Carter.
Directed by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted ), the script, by Mangold and Gill Dennis, was shaped off a pair of Cash’s autobiographies, which he wrote 20 years apart. As with nearly all singer/musician bios this one charts a depressing descent into drugs and alcohol, though it carries triumph at the wrap up instead of tragedy. Alive and ailing while the script was in development, both Cash and Carter passed away—four months apart—in 2003 before filming began. They approved the script and casting; the movie, years in the pipeline, came out in 2005.
Other than he’s six inches height-shy, Joaquin Phoenix fully convinces as Cash: he does his own singing and playing and gets as close as anyone could to suggesting that unique voice, the defiant growl of a wounded bear. The bulk of the story—after some ground-laying coverage of a rough-hewn, tragedy-marred childhood—covers the 13 years between rising star Cash meeting established country music performer Carter and their eventual marriage in 1968. In between are many ups and downs, not least that they were both unhappily married to other people, and Cash was haunted by the death of his older brother and subsequent lifelong rejection from his father (Robert Patrick, harsh as hell).
Good as Phoenix is, co-star Reese Witherspoon is flat sensational as Carter, her inner-glow performance lighting up with such warmth and vitality you completely forget the acting and fully accept you’re watching the real June: Reese walked off with an Oscar for Best Actress, and nearly every other actress award for the year. She’s dynamite. It doesn’t hurt that June was a vital member of that special breed of honest and real, sassy, sexy and smart gals who emerge from the soil and toil of that part of rural America like pure, refreshing groundwater: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris.
While there is plenty of toe-tapping music in the mix, oddly—and frustratingly for fans—left out were seminal Cash hits “Guess Things Happen That Way”, “There You Go”, “Train Of Love” and—for crying out loud!—“Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” (a fave from childhood). The epochal 1963 “Ring Of Fire”—co-written by Carter—deserved a bigger placement. Phoenix and Witherspoon took singing and instrument lessons for six months prior to starting the shoot.
Produced for $28,000,000, it clobbered a home run, #16 in 2005, earning $186,400,000 globally. Aside from the deserved win for Reese, Phoenix was nominated as Best Actor, and noms went to Film Editing, Costume Design and Sound Mixing. 136/153 minutes, with Ginnifer Goodwin, Dallas Roberts (as Sam Phillips), Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Waylon Payne (as Jerry Lee Lewis), Tyler Hilton (as Elvis), Shooter Jennings (as his daddy Waylon), Lucas Till and James Keach.