WALK THE LINE: Directed by James Mangold. Written by Gill Dennis & James Mangold, based on Man In Black and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash. Produced by Cathy Konrad, James Keach. Executive producers, John Carter Cash, Alan C. Bloomquist. Cinematography, Phedon Papamichael. Editor, Michael McCusker. Production design, David J. Bomba. Costume design, Arianne Phillips. Music by T-Bone Burnett. Executive music producer, T-Bone Burnett. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, with Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts. Also with Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Mallowy Payne and Shooter Jennings. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005. R. 136 minutes.
As James Mangold’s cinematic testament to Johnny Cash and June Carter would tell it, their legendary love led a fevered life in the spotlight for years before June finally consented to marry Johnny. She said Johnny had two personalities, the sober man she called “John” and the wild man she called “Cash.” But the movie shows that long before he was wild, the boy Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) idolized June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) from the time she was a 10-year-old, singing on the radio. We see Johnny with his ear next to the radio, and his angry, often-drunk father hollering at him through the wall to turn the damn thing off. Later Johnny is an Air Force radio operator in West Germany, looking at pictures of June in a magazine. His fever for her burned quietly for years, and then they met.
On a parallel track, the film follows Johnny’s determination to be a successful musician, singer and songwriter through his audition with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), accompanied by his drummer, Marshall Perkins (Larry Bagby), and lead guitarist, Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller). After cutting the band’s first hit records, “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny and the Tennessee Two hit the road. They played one-nighters on various Sun tours with Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice) and eventually, June Carter, Mother Maybelle Carter’s youngest daughter.
During this part of his professional life, Johnny returned home to his wife, Vivian (Ginniffer Goodwin), and their growing family as often as possible. But soon he became more comfortable on the grueling roadtrip than with Vivian, and their estrangement deepened. Johnny’s relationship with June stalls out at friendship. When they first met, both were married, then only he was, then both were, as the pressures of show biz steadily eroded their opportunities for ordinary lives, and the temptations of the road — alcohol, pills and girls — become habitual for Johnny.
We’ve seen this show-biz stoned and drunk road-trip before, in lots of other movies, most recently in Ray, to which this film will be compared. But unlike Ray Charles, who had to fight off a heroin addiction, Cash’s problem was with amphetamines, which were easily and legally available through prescription. From the mid-50s into the ’60s people experimented with pep pills. For musicians pulling all the weight of setting up a show, performing, taking it down, packing it up, and driving themselves to the next gig, pep pills helped them stay alive by eliminating the need to sleep. But the emotional, physical and psychological price was often divorce.
The prolonged courtship of this famous couple over the years, as their lives become more and more intertwined, has not been seen before. Walk the Line is a satisfying love story because we like to believe people sometimes find their soul mate and best friend in the same person, like Johnny and June.
Musically, this love story is a blast. Songs from the mid-1950s sound as fresh as if they were recorded yesterday. I love hearing Phoenix and Witherspoon’s real voices, live, in all their songs, especially “Jackson” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.” I always prefer to hear a natural voice rather than watch an actor lip-synch. Besides, the actors’ vulnerability makes their performances more heartfelt. Bravo!
Highest recommendations for Walk the Line, now playing at Cinema World and Cinemark.