This movie seems kind of blessed, like it was supposed to be made now, like this, by these people. It works pretty well on a lot of levels.
One thing from this film, I realize how relatively little sense I’ve really had these years of Johnny Cash as a person. This might be me, but I think it’s more Johnny. Elvis and Jerry Lee and John Lennon and Hank Williams- most serious fans have a pretty fair knowledge of their personal stories and emotional dynamics.
Johnny Cash, on the other hand, seems more like a cipher, like an abstract icon. He’s like one of the presidents carved onto Mount Rushmore- more of a symbol of something or other rather than like an actual fleshly human being.
Joaquin Phoenix did an outstanding job of making the icon into a real human being. I’m not sure how much was the script vs master thespianism, but I’d probably say it was a little more the latter.
The cool thing there is that Phoenix didn’t start out the movie as Johnny Cash. That’s good because that kid from Arkansas didn’t start out being Johnny Cash, either. Phoenix and the screenwriters did a good job of showing how one becomes Johnny Cash. They made a particularly good bit that way with his audition performance of “Folsom Prison Blues.” He was distinctly more Johnny Cash at the end of that performance than at the beginning.
Reese Witherspoon as June Carter is just to die for. Again, it’s pretty well written, but Ms. Witherspoon knows her business. She really sells the character and her issues and conflicts- but without overselling. She openly expresses her insecurity about her singing and musical talent- ONCE and fairly matter of factly. By the way, if you’re interested in that insecure comedienne aspect of June Carter, you should definitely check out her Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride CD.
Roger Ebert says that seeing the movie without knowing, he had thought that Joaquin had been lip syncing the singing to vintage Johnny Cash recordings. He was surprised to see in the closing credits that Phoenix and Witherspoon in fact did all their own singing in the movie.
Let me qualify his remarks a bit. I could certainly tell the difference. The true Johnny and June hardcore would know. Nonetheless, they’re pretty good to fool Roger Ebert. In fact, they turn out to be be very effective singers.
But more importantly, they’re very effective actors. What was important is not that they sound exactly like Johnny and June, but that they totally sell these characters singing these songs. They get particularly good dramatic exchanges doing “Jackson.” Also, Phoenix especially gets some good psycho Johnny action going singing “Cocaine Blues” at the Folsom Prison.
They made a good artistic decision in giving the story a relatively small frame. That is, it’s basically a movie about the Johnny and June relationship, not Johnny’s whole life and career. The movie ends with their 1968 marriage. There may be several other movies made about Johnny or June, but this was plenty enough for one.
However, that leaves understandable complaints. On of Johnny’s daughters from his first marriage complained that her mother Vivian got badly shortchanged in this movie. Even John Jr- the only child of Johnny and June- was inclined to agree with his half-sister.
That’s the thing with Vivian the movie character as in real life- inevitably shortchanged. I felt bad for Vivian. The character, and probably likewise the real person, was a good, stable, faithful, well-meaning wife who had to put up with a lot. Yet she was just not a great enough force of personality to keep up, and there just wasn’t anything she could do. Seeing her sit dutifully down front at the show, watching Johnny and June carrying on up there would have to cut right through her.
Which is not to say that they were that overly scandalous about it. It’s not like they were making out on stage, but just that they conveyed such obvious chemistry. I don’t know about the proclivities of the historical characters, but Johnny and June both overall seemed actually relatively chaste on screen. There was only one scene anything like a bedroom scene for them in the whole movie.
The movie’s all about Johnny and June, and larger political and social things going on hardly make a dent. However, there were other people in supporting roles that did well. As a performance, I was especially thrilled with the country scion Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis. He makes a particularly strong impression with his stage performance of the “Lewis Boogie.”
June’s lineage was well represented by her parents in fairly thankless supporting roles. I was particularly tickled with a scene as the clan is adopting Johnny, where father Ezra and Mother Maybelle come out wielding shotguns to run off Johnny’s dope dealer. It’s also good that they resisted the obvious temptation to ham that up like they could have.
Even Johnny’s difficult father Ray Cash came out pretty well. I knew the actor, but he became the character so effectively that it was only seeing Robert Patrick‘s name in the credits that I realized that it was ol’ T-1000. Also, the part was well written so that Patrick had something to work with in showing some of why he was so difficult. Just when I’m thinking how much I’d like to slap him, he comes across at the Thanksgiving table- in front of the Carters- with an understated but perfect defense. Well yeah, I could see that.
In short, this movie came out from good to excellent on about every count. It’s got pretty much strong music, a good fleshing out of these very public characters, good framing, and outstanding performances even from some of the minor players. I’ll be surprised if Witherspoon and Phoenix don’t both get nominated for Oscars.