“Walk the Line,” the latest offering from director James Mangold (“Girl Interrupted,” “Identity”), chronicles the first 36 years of the life of rock and roll pioneer and country music legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his one true soul mate, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon).
I’ll admit, I’m a big Johnny Cash fan—I can still remember watching ABC’s “The Johnny Cash Show” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So I was skeptical as to whether anyone could tell this story in a way that would do it justice.
“Walk theLine” is a biopic—the screenplay by Gill Dennis and director Mangold is based on Cash’s two biographies—but it’s also a story about music. Too often that means having to watch actors struggling to lip sync original recordings or cringe as you listen to them labor to provide a very poor substitute.
Phoenix and Witherspoon both underwent extensive vocal and instrumental training prior to the beginning of production, and they do all of their own singing and playing throughout the film, which covers much of Cash’s and some of the Carter Family’s catalogs up to 1968. The results are mesmerizing.
Phoenix’s singing voice is such an authentic recreation of Cash’s that his physical appearance seems to meld into that of The Man in Black. Witherspoon’s vocals are an equally worthy tribute to June Carter. But what may be most persuasive about her performance is how she helps us understand that June Carter brought a certain grace and dignity to Johnny Cash at a time in his life when he had neither.
Too often actors in these sorts of roles become mere caricatures. Oscar-winning music producer T-Bone Burnett (“Cold Mountain,” “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”) does use one original recording by Johnny and June in the movie, but I had to wait for the final credits to know for sure. While I would have liked to have seen more of the life of Cash recreated on screen—especially the incredible work he did in the last decade of his life—the sampling presented in “Walk the Line” is a tribute worthy of Johnny and June.
Following the release of Johnny Cash’s first collaboration with producer Rick Rubin in 1994 (a partnership that spawned a renaissance in Cash’s career and the last four albums of his life), Cash gave an interview to VH1. When asked about the meaning of the album cover—Cash standing in the middle of what could have been one of the cotton fields in which he labored in his formative years, dressed in a signature black duster with a dog at each side—he responded: “There’s a black dog on my right and a white dog on my left. One’s called sin and the other’s called redemption. That’s pretty much the story of my life.”
Cash’s struggles with his various demons are well chronicled in the aforementioned biographies, and “Walk the Line” gives an honest portrayal of how Cash fell into sin and found redemption. Just like the dogs he posed with on that album cover, the black dog has a patch of white and the white dog has some black. Life is full of gray areas, and God can be found in all sorts of places.
Some may argue that the importance of Christian faith in Johnny and June’s life together isn’t emphasized enough in this film. The thought crossed my mind as I wrote this review, but then I remembered something Rosanne Cash once said about her father.
While paying tribute to her father during his 1996 induction into the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Rosanne Cash said about her father’s faith, “He was raised a Southern Baptist but he has the soul of a Mystic.”
“Walk the Line” is a story about losing faith and then finding it again. But Mystics don’t always go to the desert of sand and heat to find God; sometimes they find that terrain in their own souls.
And then God sends them an angel.
Tim Adams is a freelance writer and former pastor who lives in San Antonio, Texas.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.
Director: James Mangold
Writers: James Mangold and Gill Dennis
Cast: Johnny Cash: Joaquin Phoenix; June Carter: Reese Witherspoon; Vivian Liberto: Ginnifer Goodwin; Ray Cash: Robert Patrick.
The movie’s official Web site is here.