In 1971, Johnny Cash, a child of the Great Depression and son of a Dyess, Arkansas, subsistence farmer, released a record called "Man in Black." It was one of the grandest bits of self-mythology in all of American pop culture, turning his already trademark wardrobe into a symbol of the burden he personally bore for society's ills, aligning himself with the poor, convicts, junkies, and American soldiers then dying by the thousands in Vietnam. In conjunction with Cash's already established outlaw persona, it was an outlandishly compelling statement of purpose, evoking images of John Wayne gone progressive or Tom Joad wearing chaps and a six-gun. The contradictions, complications, and possibilities inherent in Cash's self-created image never lost their allure or completely resolved themselves.
Cash's unique confluence of life story and worldview would make a helluva movie, but the handsomely staged, well-performed, Memphis-filmed Walk the Line isn't quite it. Walk the Line is interested in what Cash looked and sounded like. Where he was from and where he went. And, most significantly and most successfully, whom he met along the way. But it isn't especially interested in what Johnny Cash means.
The Johnny Cash embodied here by Joaquin Phoenix (looking and sounding the part) is an endlessly brooding guy with authority issues seemingly rooted in a tense, resentful relationship with his father (Robert Patrick). He pops pills and pursues sometime touring partner June Carter (an engaging Reese Witherspoon). But there's little of the interior life that comes through in his music. It's a mystery how the man on the screen could write songs of such elegant simplicity and enduring depth. And though the film ends a couple of years before Cash made his ideology explicit with "Man in Black," Walk the Line is light on where that ideology -- rooted in both political progressivism and rural populism and traditionalism -- comes from.
That Walk the Line skimps on the meaning and the music of Cash's career is especially regretful since so many of the elements are in place. Director James Mangold gets more than respectable musical performances from Phoenix and Witherspoon, who voice Cash and Carter (Witherspoon probably acquits herself better but also has the less daunting job) in the same way that Gary Busey did Buddy Holly (The Buddy Holly Story) and Sissy Spacek did Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner's Daughter) in earlier musical bios. And Walk the Line does good work with perhaps the film's two most purposeful music scenes, Cash's audition at Sun and his legendary performance at Folsom Prison.
At first, actor Dallas Roberts seems unworthy of Sun impresario Sam Phillips, but his intense, perceptive, businesslike characterization reveals unexpected depths. Phillips dismissing Cash's familiar gospel song and Cash's impromptu take on "Folsom Prison Blues" in response is a highlight. As for the performance at Folsom Prison itself, from Cash's testy backstage conversation with the warden to his intense connection with the inmates, it has more cinematic juice than anything here. The brief segment leaves the viewer wanting much more.
Walk the Line opens at Folsom before flashing back to Cash's childhood to begin a chronological telling of Cash's story. And though Walk the Line weaves its way back to Folsom late in the film, it doesn't end there as you might expect it to. In many ways, the Folsom device is a head-fake.
Walk the Line has much of the surface structure of a genre -- the celebrity biopic -- which is usually interesting but rarely great cinema: The rise from obscurity. The fall from the grace. The substance abuse and psychological baggage along the way. The redemption. This could as well be Ray or so many others. But that's not quite what Walk the Line is.
Ultimately, Walk the Line is less a straight Johnny Cash biopic than a love story. It's about the decade-long courtship of Cash and Carter, who are both married when they first meet on the regional country/rockabilly circuit. The focus on this relationship gives Walk the Line a different shape from other musical biopics, and it also reduces the burden on Phoenix to carry the film, giving Witherspoon's Carter nearly equal billing.
Of course, Memphis audiences will be interested in Walk the Line for other reasons as well. The film does a lovely job using present-day Memphis to evoke the Memphis of the '50s, with plenty of location shooting around the South Main district and some residential neighborhoods. The film also does a fine job evoking the regional touring circuit that predated Elvis' national stardom, in which Sun figures such as Presley, Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, along with the likes of Carter and other country and proto-rock-and-roll performers, would travel by car from town to town, performing in high school auditoriums or small theaters in places like Texarkana.
Memphis makes its impact in human form as well. Native Memphian Ginnifer Goodwin has a key role as Cash's first wife, Vivian. And among the many small appearances by local actors and musicians, look for a very brief, but high-profile, speaking part from actress Claire Johnson, who has appeared in local indie films, most notably Craig Brewer's Natural Selection.
Ultimately, Walk the Line is an extremely well-made, watchable movie about a great subject. Director Mangold (Copland, Girl, Interrupted) knows he has a good story and stays out of the way. This kind of professional, anonymous direction (Taylor Hackford's work on Ray a perfect example) is typical of the genre. The result is $8 dollars and two-and-a-half hours well spent. But Cash is a figure of such depth and volatility that it would be interesting see what someone with a stronger directoral personality and a better musical sense (Scorsese? Tarantino? Brewer?) could do with the same material. That Walk the Line is more about how Cash pined for and pursued Carter than about his art leaves room for that other movie still to be made.
Walk the Line
Opening Friday, November 18th