'Walk the Line' Review: Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon Enliven Feel-Good Johnny Cash & June Carter Biopic

First of all, I must admit that before watching Walk the Line I knew nothing about Johnny Cash's music. In fact, I used to think of Johnny Cash as a Las Vegas act in the style of Tony Bennett or Neil Diamond. If nothing else, James Mangold's overlong and more than a tad melodramatic biopic that he and Gill Dennis adapted from two Cash autobiographies made me realize that Cash was a Nashville (not Vegas) act who became a cultural phenomenon of sorts as a result of both his onstage persona – a rebel dressed in black – and his revolutionary blend of rock, country, and gospel music.

Cash's life story is dramatic and complex, but Mangold and Dennis were clearly intent on creating a by-the-book crowd pleaser – (untrue) fairy-tale happy ending and all. At times, in fact, Walk the Line feels like a remake of Taylor Hackford's highly successful and just as highly conventional Ray, the Ray Charles biopic released the year before. In both films, a gifted 20th-century American music artist, as a result of a childhood trauma involving the accidental death of a brother, leads a dissolute life of casual sex, booze, and drugs before finding redemption and inner peace – in Cash's case, thanks to the assistance of folk singer June Carter.

Now, something that Ray has that Walk the Line lacks is Ray Charles' frequently superlative music. Cash's rhythms are catchy, but they – at least those played in the film – become repetitive rather rapidly. On the other hand, Walk the Line offers something that Ray sorely lacks: star power.

In Ray, Jamie Foxx does a convincing imitation of Ray Charles' mannerisms, voice, and quirky walk, but Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, as Johnny Cash and June Carter, go beyond mere imitations to create full-blooded, vitally compelling characters. Also, while Foxx only lip-synched to original recordings of Charles' songs, it's Phoenix's and Witherspoon's singing voices we hear in Walk the Line. Together, they lift the film above the level of myriad musical biopics that Hollywood has been cranking out since movies started to talk (and sing).

As June Carter, Cash's friend, professional partner, part-time lover, and later wife, Reese Witherspoon displays an engaging combination of inner strength and vulnerability that adds some much needed complexity to her basically subordinate role. For his part, Joaquin Phoenix – though he looks nothing like the much taller and meaner-looking Johnny Cash – imbues his talented but disturbed singer with such verve that he makes one forget how poorly delineated his character truly is.

To my non-trained ears (after watching the film, I listened to a handful of Johnny Cash recordings online), Phoenix sounds remarkably like the actual Cash. As a plus, the two stars exude great chemistry in their scenes together, especially those onstage, thus making their mostly platonic romance feel more genuine than what is offered in the screenplay.

Had the filmmakers decided to leave sentiment aside to focus instead on the grittiness of Cash's life and music, Walk the Line would have been at the very worst a solid, good film. Unfortunately, they opted for the safe way out. As it stands, Walk the Line is a must-see movie not because it is an example of quality filmmaking but because it offers two capable performers in top form.

Note: A version of this Walk the Line review was initially posted in February 2006.

WALK THE LINE (2005). Dir.: James Mangold. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts. Scr.: Gill Dennis and James Mangold; from Johnny Cash's The Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography

Walk the Line: Awards and nominations for the Johnny Cash biopic

Awards/nominations for James Mangold's Walk the Line are for the year 2005 unless otherwise noted.

Academy Awards: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon); 4 additional nominations (best actor, Joaquin Phoenix; best editing, Michael McCusker; best costume design, Arianne Phillips; best sound)

American Cinema Editors: 1 win (best edited feature – comedy / musical, Michael McCusker)

Art Directors Guild: 1 nomination (best production design – contemporary film, David J. Bomba)

Boston Society of Film Critics: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

British Academy Awards: 2 wins (best actress, Reese Witherspoon; best sound); 2 additional nominations (best actor, Joaquin Phoenix; best music, T Bone Burnett)

Broadcast Film Critics Association: 2 wins (best actress, Reese Witherspoon; best soundtrack); 2 additional nominations (best film; best actor, Joaquin Phoenix)

Central Ohio Film Critics Association: Runner-up for best lead performance (Reese Witherspoon) and best sound design

Chicago Film Critics Association: 2 nominations (best actor, Joaquin Phoenix; best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Cinema Audio Society: 1 win (best sound mixing)

Costume Designers Guild: 1 nomination (best costume design – period film, Arianne Phillips)

Dallas-Ft. Worth Film Critics Association: Fourth place for best actor (Joaquin Phoenix) and third place for best actress (Reese Witherspoon)

Florida Film Critics Circle: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Golden Globes: 3 wins (best film – comedy/musical; best actor – comedy/musical, Joaquin Phoenix; best actress – comedy/musical, Reese Witherspoon)

 

Kansas City Film Critics Circle: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Las Vegas Film Critics Society: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon); also, one of the year's top-ten films

National Board of Review: One of the year's top-ten films

National Society of Film Critics: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

New York Film Critics Circle: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Norwegian Film Institute Amanda Awards: 1 win (best foreign film)

Online Film Critics Society: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon); 1 additional nomination (best actor, Joaquin Phoenix)

 

Phoenix Film Critics Society: 1 win (best use of previously published or recorded music); also, one of the year's top-ten films

Producers Guild of America: 1 nomination (best production, James Keach and Cathy Konrad)

San Francisco Film Critics Circle: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Screen Actors Guild: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon); 1 additional nomination (best actor, Joaquin Phoenix)

Southeastern Film Critics Association: One of the year's top-ten films

Utah Film Critics Society: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

Washington, D.C. (Area) Film Critics Association: 1 win (best actress, Reese Witherspoon)

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{ 2 Comments }

  1. country artist says:

    I think walk the line is an awesome movie, it shows the great work of jonny cash in a great way and is an adequate way to pay him tribute.

  2. Great post – this looks like a terrific blog. I totally agree with you about the acting. My favorite scene is one in the Folsom Prison. As a speech coach, I think Pheonix does a remarkable job using that glass of yellow water as a prop!

    I just blogged about this in my speaking advice blog, http://sarahgershman.blogspot.com/2010/01/joaquin-pheonix-shows-us-how-to-use.html

    I welcome your feedback!

    Sarah