Country -western star Johnny Cash (1932-2003) recorded more than 1,500 songs, sold more than fifty million records and won eleven Grammy awards. Even city folk know the sound of his voice and songs like "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire."
Walk the Line is a straightforward biopic of Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), based on two published autobiographies. It traces his story from his childhood in Arkansas–picking cotton, fishing, and listening to country-western music on the radio. Religion had a strong presence. The accidental death of a beloved brother and a sternly disapproving father colored his early years and those traumas haunted him throughout his life.
There’s the unhappy first marriage, the struggle to build his career, the ever-bigger successes, the over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol, his long courtship and eventual winning of June Carter (Reese Witherspoon)–reconciliation, redemption, and their 35-year marriage and partnership performing together.
It’s a story full of drama, but it’s a story that consistently creates a sense of deja vu–we’ve been here before. It’s last year’s Ray in white-face and with country music instead of soul. At two and a quarter hours, Walk the Line will stretch the line of endurance for all but devoted CW fans. Phoenix and Witherspoon both sing all the songs themselves and they do a creditable job of it, particularly Witherspoon. There are many extended concert scenes which account for the challenging length of the movie.
Production values are high–maybe too high. Sharecropping poverty in Arkansas never looked quite so appealing. Even Folsom Prison looks spick-and-span. Director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted) has left out the grit and it all seems a step removed from reality. Mangold also sticks closely to standard chronological exposition. The film is visualized in such a straightforward manner that it feels as if it could have been made in 1950. There’s not a moment offreshly imaginative or unconventional footage.
Witherspoon(Vanity Fair, Legally Blond II) not only sings with a convincing June Carter sound, but she catches the sense of humor and the perkiness as well as the down to earth side of the singer. Phoenix (Signs, Buffalo Soldiers), though, gives a Johnny-One-Note performance in which Cash’s emotional neediness is so prevalent that it becomes monotonous and overwhelms any possibility of genuine moments of joy or triumph. Similarly, Cash’s father, Ray (Robert Patrick), is so consistently portrayed as disdainfully disapproving that the role becomes a caricature.