Walk the Line
directed by James Mangold
(20th Century Fox, 2005)

For those who want something more than the stereotypical celebrity biopic, there's the great love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, skillfully directed by James Mangold. But what really puts Walk the Line over the top is the masterful job T-Bone Burnett did with the music.

Although Cash had a lengthy and accomplished career and can easily fill a boxed set with his best songs, song selection for a movie like this is hardly easy. Burnett deftly avoids every possible pitfall in his handling of the music in Walk the Line. He left out anything that might seem cliched, including "A Boy Named Sue," which introduced a whole new generation of pop audiences to Cash in the '60s, and "Man in Black," where Johnny explains why he always wore black, just to name two somewhat surprising omissions; even still the song selection is just perfect.

The production of the music is just right too, with the most amazing part being that the two lead actors are totally credible singing their own parts. Burnett's had a respectable career as a singer-songwriter, but he's really disinguished himself as a producer, and since he's extended his production projects to films, his work has been nothing short of genius. Starting with his first album as producer, the excellent Leo Kottke album Time Step (1983), he has racked up production credits with Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison (the classic "Black & White Night" video), Bruce Cockburn, including his great "Nothing But a Burning Light" (1991), Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, Jackson Browne and the awesome collaboration of k.d. lang and Tony Bennett on "What a Wonderful World" (2002), just to name a few career highlights.

Burnett moved into film soundtrack production in 1985 and now has a list of soundtrack credits almost as long as his music production list. His film work has had a great impact to the point that his soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) singlehandedly revived the traditional American folk music genre and ultimately paved the way for new audiences to discover many great artists. Burnett worked similar magic on the Cold Mountain (2003) soundtrack. In Walk the Line, the music is an integral part of the story, and from the recreation of Johnny's 1957 audition with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, to the Folsom Prison concert that bookends the movie, Burnett gets it right in every scene.

The degree to which Joachin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon disappear into their roles is uncanny, as is their ability to sing their parts with complete credibility; equal credit for that goes both to the actors and to the many months of rehearsal and coaching by T-Bone Burnett. Phoenix positively channels Johnny Cash, much in the same way that Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles in Ray (2004). Reese Witherspoon has been good in movies before, but here she turns in easily the best piece of acting in her career. Both lead performances are totally Oscar-worthy.

Certain elements of the story are prototypical of such biopic stories, the rise to fame, the cheating, the drinking, the pill-popping, etc., but the relationship between Johnny and June easily transcends the stock plot. Since we know that they ultimately had a marriage that lasted for 35 years until they both passed away within a few months of each other in 2003, the lengthy period during which Johnny was married to someone else as they gradually fell for each other, creates suspense not so much for whether they will get together, but more for the when, the why and the how. Walk the Line does a good job analyzing the motivations that drove Cash not only to excel at music but to self-destruct at the same time. At the core of Johnny's angst (according to the movie) was the childhood accidental death of his brother and the psychological brutality of his father, which continued seemingly all through his life. All the suppressed anger and frustration finds its way out through the music and on stage in his concert performances.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Robert Patrick (Terminator 2) and singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne as Johnny's parents, and Ginnifer Goodwin, (Mona Lisa Smile) who turns in a great performance as Johnny's first wife, Vivian. In a nice casting move, Waylon Jennings is played by his real-life son, Shooter Jennings. Dallas Roberts also plays a very believable Sam Phillips.

You might think that if you've seen one musical biopic you've seen them all, but you'll rarely see one as well done and as musically satisfying as Walk the Line.

by William Kates
17 March 2006

Johnny Cash was driven, sullen, addicted to drugs and alcohol and starved for support from his family. June Carter was perky, peppy, unlucky in romance but surrounded by love from the famous Carter clan.

Both were talented performers who, despite their differences, would come together in a relationship that would become one of the great love affairs of music history.

Walk the Line is an intense look at their early years. He came from a poor farming family, lost his beloved brother at an early age and lost his father's respect even sooner. She experienced fame from an early age as the youngest of the Carter Family, but considered herself the least talented of her famous kin.

Music brought them together, and even marriages to the other people couldn't separate them for long.

As Cash, Joaquin Phoenix brings a quiet intensity to the screen. He never softens the sometimes harsh truths of the role; Cash was a hard drinker, addicted to pills, prone to anger, driven to succeed at any cost before he'd face his father with the notion of failure. The only things that smooth his rough edges are his songs -- and June.

Reese Witherspoon absolutely lights up the screen as the youngest Carter. Battered by the failure of two marriages and a love she believes unattainable, she remains focused, friendly and delightfully sweet.

He is the satellite that orbits her sun. Whatever chemistry the real June and Johnny had, Joaquin and Reese channel it here. Both wear their roles like comfortable suits, making every word of dialogue, every action and every perfect note easy to believe.

So much has already been said about the pair's singing, it seems pointless to repeat it here. Suffice it to say, had the real Johnny and June survived to hear the final soundtrack, I can only imagine they'd have been flattered and pleased.

Phoenix and Witherspoon are surrounded by a strong cast, from Cash's first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), and his unyielding father, Ray (Robert Patrick), to the strong and wise Carter family led by Mother Maybelle (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) and Ezra (Dan Beene) and budding fellow musicians including Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice) and more.

Far more than the musical biography I'd expected to see, Walk the Line is a celebration of a famous love that resonates through the generations. Director James Mangold has made a movie that's more than the sum of its parts.

by Tom Knapp
27 January 2007

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