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Walk the Line (Widescreen Edition) (2005)

Drama and Music Video & Concerts movie directed by James Mangold

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Joaquin the Line: Phoenix Burns as Johnny Cash

  • Dec 2, 2005
  • by
Pros: acting, costumes, music

Cons: formulaic, a little cheesy

The Bottom Line: The bottom line shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

When creating a biopic of someone who lived a long, tumultuous life, filmmakers often have difficulty choosing where to focus their attention. Trying to find a balance between illustrating the protagonist’s formative years, struggles to gain recognition, destructive behaviors, and adult relationships can be a daunting task.

Then there’s the question of whether to portray a character accurately or gloss over his flaws. Since one of the film’s executive producers is John Carter Cash, I think you can guess which path Walk the Line chooses.

In Walk the Line, director James Mangold opts to emphasize Johnny Cash’s relationship with June Carter, pulling the movie dangerously close to schmaltzy romance territory. Based on previous knowledge of the legendary “Man in Black,” the film seems to oversimplify things and perpetuate the myth of “love conquers all.” Despite several scenes of drug addiction and pain, it all just seems a little too easy.

But, cynicism aside, Walk the Line is a remarkable achievement complete with brilliant acting and singing and gorgeous cinematography and costumes. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Johnny Cash from his adolescence to mid 30s is Oscar-worthy. Reese Witherspoon, while not nearly as talented as Phoenix, lights up the screen as June Carter. It’s easy to see why Johnny falls for the beautiful and spunky singer/comedienne who saves him with her tough love.

It would be easy to dismiss Walk the Line as being another cliché-ridden love story if it weren’t grounded in fact. The high and lowlights of Johnny Cash’s life read like a screenplay about a classic, troubled hero even without Hollywood intervention.* His story is compelling yet familiar. Perhaps that’s why Cash is such an iconic figure in American culture.

First off, Johnny Cash suffers through childhood and, like the vast majority of American men, has issues (for lack of a better word) with his father, Ray (Robert Patrick). As young children, we see Johnny and his older brother, Jack, working in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Ray blames Johnny when Jack is killed in an accident and laments that God has taken the wrong son.

Johnny’s loneliness and alienation continue when he serves in the Air Force. Watching a film about Folsom Prison inspires Cash to write songs from the perspective of criminals. Many people think that Cash’s songs are autobiographical, but he writes “Folsom Prison Blues” before seeing the inside of a cell. Although Cash was arrested for drug possession several times, he never served more than one night in jail. A scene in the film where Cash observes a young boy shining shoes illustrates how in tune (literally) he is with other people’s pain.

After returning from overseas, Cash marries Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), but their relationship suffers as Cash’s music career takes off. Vivian is, justifiably, jealous of groupies and June Carter.

I found the Vivian/Johnny/June portion of the film to be rather dull, but the music in Walk the Line is phenomenal. Hearing the evolution of the train-like sound that Cash pioneered may not turn casual viewers into die-hard fans, but they will certainly appreciate how influential the Man in Black was to country and rockabilly music. I wanted to stomp my feet like the prisoners at Folsom. We briefly see Cash arguing with music executives and talking about Bob Dylan, but I would have liked to see more emphasis on his rebellious nature. Yes, Cash scored hits on the Billboard chart, but he’s far from mainstream.

Walk the Line has a few moments of humor during Cash’s interactions with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, and Carl Perkins. Jerry Lee (Waylon Payne) is suitably nutty, but it seems as if the filmmakers chose the blandest Elvis they could (Tyler Hilton) to avoid upstaging Cash.

Incredibly, Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing and have learned to play the guitar and autoharp, respectively. Phoenix is especially impressive on “Ring of Fire,” mimicking Cash’s rich baritone. The love that Phoenix exudes when he gazes at June and the pain in his eyes when he lapses into drug addiction seem so real. Witherspoon has annoyed me in past roles, but she is charming in this varied role and looks gorgeous as a brunette. Her colorful outfits are so fun that they ought to market a June Carter doll.

Walk the Line isn’t quite dark enough, but it’s as good as anything we seen in a mainstream biopic in quite some time. Still, it seemed wrong to leave the theater with that warm, fuzzy feeling after seeing a film about a musical outlaw.

* See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash .


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More Walk the Line (2005) reviews
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Very strong acting performances by the leads. I wish there was a second part of the film that lead up to the passing of both of June and Johnny.
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Phenomenal film with phenomenal acting. This is a must-see. Awesome music, heart wrenching drama centered on the human condition, and totally characters you'll fall in love with. As a general rule, I find that true stories make for terrible films... writers seem to get lazy and rely too much on the elements of the true story without adapting it to make for a compelling film (i.e. The Blind Side). Not at all the case here though. Prepare to cry ; )
review by . May 30, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Stars Phoenix and Witherspoon are the movie. Their performances are top-drawer as, surprisingly, is their singing. Phoenix worked hard to master the tics and idiosyncracies of Johnny Cash. In fact, having seen Cash in concert on several occasions, I occasionally felt that some of the signature gestures, such as the pout and guitar slinging were a bit overdone.     The storyline wasn't all that engrossing. Too much emphasis for me on a few selected episodes from Cash's life and …
review by . February 03, 2007
We missed this movie in the theater, and it finally popped up to the top in our netflix queue, a bit like cream rising to the top of the milk churn. This is an extremely well done biopic, that limits itself to the early career of Johnny Cash's life. The script is almost a little too clever, or perhaps the source material--Cash's own autobiographies--made things a little too clear, in that sometimes the connections between his actions and his childhood are so strong that it's like the screenwriter …
review by . September 26, 2006
"Walk The Line" is supposed to be about the ups and downs of one John R. Cash, but in actuality, it's three stories in one. The first story is that of Johnny Cash, who grew up in Arkansas a poor farmer's son. His father was hard on him and even cruel when Johnny's older brother passes in an accident. As Johnny gets older, he pursues a career in music. His first big break comes at the hands of none other than Sam Phillips. You know him for his many acts which include the King, the Killer, and the …
review by . May 22, 2006
This past weekend I was able to watch this film and Joaquin Phoenix wears Johnny Cash like a suit. He isn't doing a Rich Little impersonation, you don't rub your eyes in disbelief, but he channels a man so distinct in appearance and voice to a level that is beyond admirable. One of the traits that made Johnny Cash a legend was that nobody sounded or looked like him. Short of a computer generated Cash walking around in his own bio-pic like one of those John Wayne beer commercials this is the definitive …
review by . May 21, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
"Walk the Line" isn't just an admirable improvisation; it is a great movie. Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) live out the classic love story. He is in love with her, but she is usually unavailable or uninterested. There are other fascinating storylines available, too. The movie illuminates his difficult childhood with his brother's tragedy and his father's abuse. We also feel the anguish of an artist before he becomes famous. He must start with an unfulfilling marriage …
review by . March 02, 2006
Rarely has a biopic film made such a racket at the box office. After viewing the DVD version of WALK THE LINE the reasons for that success must be attached to some sort of homage to Johnny Cash, an American icon of sorts. Yes, his life and career are notable - the emergence of a legendary Country Western singer out of the elements of a warped childhood peaked by the accidental death of his older brother whom the father clearly preferred, and the torture of self doubt that haunted a man through an …
review by . November 17, 2005
Pros: Phoenix, Witherspoon, and a great story.     Cons: None     The Bottom Line: A true classic and easy Oscar favorite.     Condensing something as vast and complex as the life of a person into a film is often a daunting task. With so many events that comprise the span of an individual, knowing what to cover and what to omit is a daunting task for any writer. For an icon like Johnny Cash, this task becomes monumental as not only does …
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A solid and entertaining biopic,Walk the Lineworks less as a movie than an actors' showcase for its stars. Joaquin Phoenix's total immersion into the skin of singer Johnny Cash is startling--watching it, you can't believe this is the same guy who whined about being "vexed" inGladiator. As he evolves from a farm boy to gospel croonin' plunker to the Man in Black, Phoenix disappears into Cash's deep baritone, his way of slinging the guitar onto his back, and his hunched-up style of strumming. But it's more than just picking up mannerisms: Phoenix also sings as Johnny Cash, and it's quite impressive.

The story of how Johnny Cash became Johnny Cash traces from his childhood under a distant father (Robert Patrick) to his early attempts at a music career, during which he married his girlfriend Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin). During a tour with the likes of Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), he encounters singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and his love for her--and her rejection of him through the years--spurs him into drugs, drinking, and depression. As with most movies based on real-life singers, as his popularity grows, the women come a-flockin', and the childhood demons surface. Witherspoon, who matches Phoenix drawl for drawl, plays June both as a sassy spitfire whose charm breaks your heart, and as a sympathetic friend who tries to help Cash get over--well, her. The love story is what endures, but the ...

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Director: James Mangold
Genre: Drama, Music, Musical
DVD Release Date: February 28, 2006
Runtime: 136 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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