Johnny Cash walked the line between Satan and salvation much of his life. Growing up dirt-poor in Arkansas with a bitter, drunken father, and suffering the early loss of a beloved older brother in a hideous accident, Cash knew pain — and transformed that hurt into a passel of fantastic tunes, becoming an early rock ’n’ roller, a country music icon and one of the few musicians cool to just about everyone.
He struggled with drug addiction for years, and long-unrequited love for a fellow singer. He raised a lot of hell — yet he was also a committed Christian.
He’s one of the few musicians to end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he had hits stretching from the 1950s right on up to months before his death in 2003.
Johnny Cash’s epic American life was made for a movie, and Walk The Line delivers, thanks to remarkable performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his future wife, June Carter.
It’s mostly a rousing joy, although director James Mangold bogs down a little too much in the drug abuse and darkness of Cash’s life. The potent romantic chemistry and soaring music performances give Walk The Line its real kick.
The musical numbers crackle with an electric tension, particularly when Phoenix and Witherspoon duet. Believe it or not, these two actually sang every note themselves. Phoenix really manages to evoke the spirit of Cash’s deep drawling majesty, echoing Cash without just imitating him. It’s a smart move — merely lip-synching Cash’s tunes would not have had the same weight onscreen.
The story follows the first 40 years or so of Cash’s life. Trying to support his wife Vivian and children as a young man — a marvelous bit shows the travails of “John Cash, door-to-door salesman” — Cash flounders, knowing that he wants to play his music, but unsure how to achieve it.
In an audition before pioneering Memphis record producer Sam Phillips, we watch Cash feel his way through a halting performance of “Folsom Prison Blues,” discovering his signature sound right before our eyes (“steady like a train, sharp like a razor,” June Carter calls it).