Watch the trailer (at apple.com).
I never really got the Johnny Cash thing. I've never been all that much into Country music, though there are a few things I'm nuts for, the Carter family being one. But he always seemed to me like one of those leftover novelty acts from Generations Past, like Andy Williams or Mel Torme. Plus the whole ink-black-hair thing creeped me out. The only memory I have of listening to The Man In Black was some random track on a Christmas album. Conway Twitty was on there too. Is it any wonder I missed out on the mystique?
Frankly, I went to see Walk the Line because I'll see Joaquin Phoenix in anything. I have a soft spot for Reese Witherspoon, too; I like her sass. I learned three things from this experience: 1) I need to seriously re-think my position on Johnny Cash; 2) Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix are eerily almost too-talented for their age, and 3) I never ever ever ever need to see another biopic again for as long as I live.
To the first lesson first. I never knew what a sad, complex and powerful artist Johnny Cash was. I have very little in common with him as a person, but I could relate somehow to the throbbing ache at his center. He seemed to carry around an awareness of his own capacity for wickedness, a burden that made him doubt whether he deserved to be loved at all. That made him raw and honest and restless and defiant, and all of that got poured into his music. In fact, he seemed to be one of those people who could barely express himself in words -- unless they were lyrics to a song. This movie showed me, at last, what the hoopla was all about.
The film itself, however, is hopelessly pedestrian. It's a standard-issue biopic bounce along the headlines: He's poor, he loses his beloved brother, he discovers the guitar, goes on the road, gets hooked on drugs, sleeps around, loses his family, hits bottom, writhes around on a bed until he's sober again, and hang-doggedly attempts to revive his career. It is to Joaquin Phoenix's credit that we never look away from the screen. He inhabits Johnny Cash with a meticulously-crafted performance that goes far beyond impersonation. He captures certain truths about the man: his gruff honesty, his shame, his renegade temper, his desire for salvation. And oh yes, his voice. As has been much trumpeted, Joaquin does all of his own singing, and he really pulls it off. He gets all the way down there in those growly bass tones that we all associate with Johnny Cash, and his singing gets richer and fuller and more moving as the film goes on. Reese Witherspoon is his equal throughout -- she is as feisty and spirited as June Carter ever was, and she makes exacting, split-second acting choices that let us glimpse the brokenhearted vulnerability and confusion lying just beneath June's famous grit. Her singing is less convincing -- well-done, but more like adorable Reese than spitfire June. Together, though, Phoenix and Witherspoon have so much chemistry and charisma, you are knocked back in your chair. They are the sole reason to see this movie.
To my third point. Not to be Miss Crankypants, but with very few exceptions -- Amadeus, Patton, Ghandi, Helter Skelter (now there's a cast of characters Monty Python could do something with!) -- I think the whole biopic genre should be outlawed. Isn't that what documentaries are for? I mean, honestly, do we ever need to see another actor doing the"I'm in Withdrawl Hell" bed-sweats again? I'm convinced there's some clause in Hollywood contracts these days that states "doesn't do full-frontal nudity, but is available for Oscar-baiting delirium tremens." Joaquin sweats & shivers persuasively enough, but COME ON ALREADY.
The biggest flaw of the film is that it turned Cash's life into a story of redemption and love using the relationship between Johnny & June to explain the man. They should have focused instead on the relationship between the man and his MUSIC. In my opinion, the most mesmerizing (and revealing) scene comes early in the movie: a confrontation between Cash and Sam Phillips, the Sun Records owner who gave him his big break (played brilliantly by Dallas Roberts). Cash auditions with a hum-drum rendition of a popular gospel song, which Phillips calls off almost immediately. They have a heated argument, and Phillips snaps, challenging Cash to imagine he had just been hit by a train, and is now lying on the tracks bloody and desperate and about to die -- and he's got 2 minutes left on earth to sing one last song. "That's the song that will save people," says Phillips, "not some tired old hymn." At that, Cash pulls out a rocky "Folsom Prison Blues," and he's suddenly on his way. It seems to me Sam Phillips's echo is in every song Cash wrote after that, desperate and bloody and true. I wish the movie had broken out of its tedious bio-formula and focused on that instead -- then it could've really shed some light on the mysterious magic that made him The Man in Black.