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Film Review: Walk The Line

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4/ 5

136 minutes
released November 18, 2005

Walk The Line is an excellent film and is elevated above being a typical biopic by the stellar cast and the performances by the two lead actors. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix receive Oscar nominations, not to mention a Best Picture nod for the film itself. Director James Mangold received acclaim for Cop Land (1997) and Girl, Interrupted (1999, in which Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for best supporting actress.)

Phoenix’s portrayal is understated and subtle as opposed to being over the top and flashy. It seemed realistic and heartfelt as he struggled through bittersweet moments. You see the tough upbringing he had with a drunken, cold and seemingly loveless father (Robert Patrick, X-File‘s John Doggett and Terminator Two‘s T-1000). The friendship with his older brother ended due to tragedy and his father placed some of the blame on Johnny, who was fishing at the time. He felt guilty about this his whole life. Over 60 years later, Cash talked about how he looked forward to meeting his brother again in heaven. His first marriage turned cold as his wife took little interest in his life on the road. At the same time, he pined for the lovely and divorced June Carter (1929), who constantly rebuffed him as he took to a life of popping pills, further digging himself into a pit of despair. Or a ring of fire. He used to listen to radio broadcasts of the Carter Family, which included a young June, in the 1940s.

It’s interesting to note that all the Johnny Cash and June Carter vocals were sung by Phoenix and Witherspoon. And they did play my favorite Cash tune, the crackling “Jackson,” which won the pair a Grammy Award in 1967, in the Best Country & Western Performance, Duet, Trio Or Group (vocal or instrumental) category.

One of my favorite scenes in the film was the audition for Sam Phillips (1923), owner of Sun Records, the seminal early roots and rock’n’roll label that helped launch Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. He gave honest feedback regarding the gospel song that Cash’s band performed to try and get a deal. He asked Cash that if he was in a car wreck and had time to sing just one more song before he died, what would he sing? Cash performed one of his non-gospel, from-the heart-songs, one he wrote while he was in the military. This was the very first Johnny Cash recording, “Hey Porter.”

Until now, I have always thought of Reese Witherspoon as a credible but limited actress, a flyweight. This is arguably her best role; it’s a terrific performance. She’s razor sharp and when she’s on stage with Phoenix, she’s totally convincing as a performer.

If you ever wondered how Johnny Cash ended up recording Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (1968), you get the explanation and see the resistance. For years, he received a ton of fan mail from inmates and incarcerated men, people who could relate to the songs about lawbreaking and the outlaw life.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Cash, due to certain scenes, especially ones involving his father. During one Thanksgiving at Cash’s beautiful new house and waterfront acreage, his dad couldn’t say a kind word, but instead levelled criticism at his famous son, who, in 1969, was arguably the hottest act in the world, outselling even the Beatles. Meanwhile, it was apparent that Johnny Cash so desperately wanted his father’s unconditional love, something that was long overdue.

You do get to see Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings and the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, but they in no way overshadow Cash in this story. You also get to see how Cash and June Carter had a chance to develop and solidify their friendship and love. They toured together with a few other artists, and later, together.

True, this film is not unlike last year’s Ray: poor boy grows up to eventually become hot, young star, takes pills, does some womanizing, ends up in the slammer, eventually comes clean and lives out the rest of his life trouble-free.

If you see this film, there are bound to be emotions that you can really relate to. Johnny Cash was a performer people truly identified with. He’s had his share of hard knocks, disappointments. His attempts to reconcile his outlaw lifestyle with his strong spiritual beliefs form the basis of his memorable songs and this excellent film.

Triniman's Blog
Ed: JH

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About Triniman

Almost weekly, Triniman catches new movies, and adds one or two CDs to his collection. Due to time constraints, he blogs about only 5% of the CDs, books and DVDs that he purchases. Holed up in the geographic centre of North America, the cultural mecca of Canada, and the sunniest city north of the 49th, Winnipeg, Triniman blogs a bit when he's not swatting mosquitoes, shoveling snow or golfing.
  • MCH

    They did a great job portraying an incredible story, and I felt Joaquin Phoenix was especially good. The intertwining of Johnny’s start with the historic beginnings of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins was a real kick. I’d give WALK THE LINE a 9 on a scale of 1-to-10, even though they didn’t play some of my favorites, like “I Still Miss Someone” and “A Boy Named Sue.”

  • Triniman

    Yes, it was cool to see the beginnings of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. In Ray, we saw Quincy Jones, among others.

  • it could have been way longer. the ending sucked.