“Walk the Line” is a muted tribute to Johnny and June Carter Cash. Dealing as it primarily does with a troubled decade in their lives, the movie tends to emphasize the troubles at the expense of the music but this doesn’t dim the music when it comes. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are convincing in their roles as the legendary country music singers, and they are due a grand salute for daring to do all their own singing in the film.
The movie opens with the idyllic relationship between Johnny and his older brother Jack. Just as the two young boys win our affection, Jack is killed in a saw mill accident. The boys’ father, a grim straight arrow, heaps on Johnny a load of blame that will weigh him down for the rest of his life.
By 1955 Johnny has a wife whose ambition is to live in a fine house surrounded by material proof of her husband’s success. With a frustrated wife and small baby at home, Johnny, failed door-to-door salesman, talks his way into an audition with a record label. In a fine scene, the manager tells Cash to leave his Baptist gospel at the door and come up with the one song he would sing if it were the last song of his life. He does.
Success comes quickly on tour where the singer finally meets June Carter of the renowned Carter family – Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters – The rest of the movie is devoted to Carter and Cash as the hit country duet with each of them struggling with their relationship. Carter holds Cash at arm’s length in Christian guilt after her own two failed marriages. A mess of a decade consumes them both while Cash slides into alcohol, drugs, violence, jail and rehab.
The good side of all this is that Carter and Cash, when they finally got to it, remained married for 35 years, the king and queen of country who adored each other and were rarely apart. Carter died in 2003 after heart surgery, Cash followed a few months later to no one’s surprise.
When Cash does a live taping of a concert at Folsom Prison despite the reluctance of his managers, his sizzling rhythm and remarkable bass notes surge toward the prison audience. His close identification with them combines with his big heart in a moment of amazing spontaneity.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are simply terrific as the Cashes. If the difficult decade seems to drag on too long, it may well be because we just can’t get enough of the music they are managing to deliver in their performances as country music’s beloved couple. It is a real surprise to watch Phoenix and Witherspoon reach for a new talent within themselves.
Whenever circumstances force Cash to stretch, he rolls on stage like a loaded freight train, unstoppable, right into the exciting new rhythms that built the bridge between country and rock n roll. We wait for the music of the big guy who is all heart.
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