NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Walk the Line Hits the Mark

Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon Shine as Johnny and June

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Walk the Line works so well as a movie because it does not try to be a music epic. Instead, it’s a drama about a man who happened to be a musical artist. Of all the music biopics I recall, this joins the two other really good, solid films that have been made about music artists in recent years: The Buddy Holly Story and Ray. Although those were hardly perfect, they worked because they reduced music legends to human scale, warts and all.

Ray had many imperfections I could quibble with, but no major ones. The big flaw of The Buddy Holly Story was its slanted portrayal of producer Owen Bradley and his Nashville sessions with Holly.

It’s ironic that Cash’s only real jail time — an overnight stay for being busted for buying speed in Mexico — becomes a central focus of Walk the Line and is portrayed as a major news scandal at the time, which it was not. It melds into a prison/jail metaphor for Cash, which was, though, a very real theme of his career, and thus his life. In a very convincing scene, Cash (Phoenix) tries to justify his pills to his beleaguered first wife Vivian (played by Gennifer Goodwin) by telling her they’re “prescription pills” and that he was busted only because he bought them in Mexico without a prescription.

A common thread running through all three movies is the very careful –and ultimately skillful and successful — casting of the lead actor. Gary Busey totally inhabited Buddy Holly’s character and life, as did Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Joaquin Phoenix does the same with Johnny Cash, at least the Cash of this particular part of his life, which is a very narrow slice of his whole life and career. But Phoenix carries that brooding intensity of the young Cash, the explosive nature, the total unpredictability of this emerging forceful star.

The fact that Phoenix sings as Cash at first seems startling. But the fact that all three lead actors in Holly, Ray and Walk the Line sang the music of their characters also became the key in their credibility in convincing audiences they could actually become their characters.

As Busey did for Holly and Foxx for Charles, Phoenix very graphically inhabits the very spark and spirit of Cash. The film opens with a triumphant concert at Folsom Prison. The story line pretty much carries Johnny Cash from his childhood (presented through flashbacks) on a farm in Arkansas up through the stormy early years of his career, leading up to June Carter finally accepting his offer of marriage. The early moments of the film establish the two lifelong bête noires of Cash’s life: his domination by his abusive father, Ray, (acerbically played by the forceful Robert Patrick) and the accidental sawmill death of his older brother, Jack. The latter was intended to be the star of the family, and Ray Cash never let his son forget about that until he, the father, died. Cash in turn felt guilty about Jack’s death his whole life. Phoenix begins almost tentatively with his own early Johnny Cash but quickly grows in the role until he seems to fill the screen every time he appears.

Musical clichés include Cash getting a standing ovation the very first time he told an audience, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” And in a standard star-is-born moment, Sun Records’ Sam Phillips initially seems resistant to Cash. But he almost instantly recognizes his genius, practically saying, “Oh, you’re Johnny Cash. Sure! You’re OK!” And, although the movie shows June Carter writing “Ring of Fire” all by herself, we know that in real life, Merle Kilgore was credited as co-writer. The full story of how that song came about may never be known. But that would be hard to show onscreen.

Reese Witherspoon’s performance here is a delightful surprise. She totally captures the deceptively-complicated June Carter persona and is totally believable as Cash’s longtime obsession and the ultimate foundation of his life. And she very credibly sings Carter’s songs.

Together Witherspoon and Phoenix deliver a glowing performance as country music’s most compelling couple.

Are Phoenix and Witherspoon great singers? No. Does that really matter? No. It works in the movie. I doubt their voices would stand up well on a CD, so I will probably not listen to the soundtrack album. Keep the magic on the screen, where it belongs.