WALK THE LINE
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix,
Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Shelby Lynne
Director: James Mangold
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 153 Minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2008
“Hello…I’m Johnny Cash.”
When June Carter Cash passed away, I don’t think it surprised anyone that Johnny Cash followed a short time later. He had heard her voice his whole life, tuning into her on the radio when she was a child star in the Carter family and he was a poor kid in Arkansas with big dreams. For her, he would walk the line. And her love quite literally saved his life.
Walk the Line is a musical biopic, to be sure, but to me, it’s first and foremost a love story: the kind where there are two people who belong with one another, but instinctively fight it for this reason and that. But when they finally come together, it lights up the screen like a burning ring of fire.
Johnny Cash (Phoenix) was an American legend. His songs often tread on the dark side of American life. His presence on stage was like a tightly wound coil about to spring. He wielded his guitar like a rifle, and when he sang, he meant business. This movie captures all of that. But it goes a lot further.
Like Ray, Walk the Line is about a superstar who rose from humble roots and battled demons in order to become what they became. And like Ray Charles, Johnny had to deal with the death of a brother at an early age, for which he always carried guilt. His father (Patrick), a stern brooding drinker, even said right in front of Johnny that “God took the wrong son”.
He always had music, and wrote a song about prison life while in the Air Force. He married his childhood love Vivian (Lynne), and tried to eke out a living while dreaming of stardom, playing with a couple of guys who barely knew a note.
An audition for legendary producer Sam Phillips would change his life. Phillips encouraged Cash to put his inhibitions aside, and in a remarkable impromptu take of “Folsom Prison Blues”, we can actually see the man in black as he finds the voice that would make him unforgettable.
If the dark side of his life was the oppression of his father, the light came when he finally got to meet June Carter (Witherspoon). They would tour and record together as Johnny became a household name. And she would be there for him when he battled his addictions to drug and alcohol.
Despite his success, Johnny sank about as far as a man could go, even ending up in jail when he buys some pills across the border. His father’s reaction: “Now you won’t have to work so hard to make people believe you been to jail.” The chemistry he shared with June was the best thing in his life. But Johnny was married to a woman who didn’t understand nor support his dream, and June was dealing with a couple of bad marriages of her own. Both had kids, making matters even more complicated.
But June and the Carter family saw something in Johnny that was worth their emotional investment. In another of the film’s best scenes, they sit with Johnny as he tries to kick drugs. Ma and Pa Carter even chase Johnny’s pusher off his property with a shotgun. Everybody should have such dedicated in-laws…and Johnny and June weren’t even married.
That would be rectified when a clean and sober Johnny, fresh off the monster success of his At Folsom Prison live album, proposed to June on stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd. It was a story almost too incredible for fiction…yet Johnny and June lived every moment of it.
Walk the Line is an incredible film on many levels, from the performances to the music to the heart and honesty of the story. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon earned acclaim for both doing their own singing in the movie, but that’s really just the beginning of their impressive work. Phoenix becomes the living embodiment of the heavy-voiced singer, capturing everything from his steely defiance to his drug-induced vulnerability.
And Reese Witherspoon, who’s been a favorite of mine forever, really shines as June. She captures the plucky spirit of the country star who learned to be funny because she believed she couldn’t really sing, but her performance went beyond the on-stage banter, finding the heart of an incredible woman who was strong enough for two when her man needed it most.
But yes, both are impressive as singers. They could tour in a Johnny Cash/June Carter tribute show and people would believe it. In fact, after the movie was shot, Joaquin actually took his guitar to Folsom and did his own concert. The man in black would have been pleased.
How this movie missed a Best Picture Oscar nomination is something I’ll never understand. It truly was one of the year’s best offerings…an entertaining, musical story of an American legend and the woman who loved him and helped him find himself.
This anamorphic transfer from Fox is a knockout. From the beautiful country outdoors to the dank interiors of Folsom Prison, the look of this film is pure Americana. Colors are rich and beautiful, and textures are crisp and well detailed throughout.
Even better is the audio…either Dolby Digital or DTS, the 5.1 mixes are dynamic and strong. Cash’s music booms from the subwoofer, and the concert scenes are especially vibrant. Spoken words are clean and clear, and the surrounds capture ambience and crowd noises in an excellent blend.
This two disc special edition is loaded. The first disc features commentary from James Mangold, who shares his memories not only of making the film, but the writing, as he even reads sections of his screenplay to illustrate what he was thinking. His tales of the real Johnny Cash and what it was like working with his lead actors are especially winning.
Disc Two starts with a jukebox featuring extended musical numbers featuring Joaquin and Reese, in 5.1 sound. There are six featurettes: one on the making of the film, one on Johnny Cash’s comeback via the Folsom Prison concert, one on Johnny's faith, one on Sun Records, one on Joaquin and Reese becoming the legendys, and one on Johnny and June’s love story. These all feature interview clips with Phoenix, Witherspoon, Mangold, and other stars like Marty Stuart, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, Merle Haggard and more.
There are also ten terrific deleted scenes with optional Mangold commentary (I personally can’t understand why they cut the bit of Johnny writing “Cry, Cry, Cry”), plus a theatrical trailer.
Walk the Line is a perfect biopic, love story, and musical all in one. Johnny Cash made the music, and June Carter helped make the man. Together, they made history, and even though they’re now gone from us, neither their story or their sounds will ever die.