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Walk the Line (2005)

by on 2010/03/26

In its original theatrical run, I remember two distinct reactions to Walk the Line in the popular press, always coupled together:  (1) it was very good but (2) it was basically a redo of the Ray Charles biopic, Ray. Not to disparage Ray — a great movie itself — but while I understand the comparison, I find the dismissal lazy.

Certainly, there are parallels in the lives of Cash and Charles, but I reckon it’d be hard to swing a cat and not hit a musical star who: came from poverty, suffered tragedy, became an addict of some sort, and navigated a complex love life.  Would we level similar criticisms at Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley, selected Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison?

I suspect viewers originally drew parallels because more than one of the same type of film were released in a proximate timeframe.  Such synchronicity is a common occurrence, as suggested by just a handful of precedents:  Leviathan and The Abyss, Antz and A Bug’s Life; Dark City and The Matrix; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.

So knowing what not to hold against it, how then do we judge Walk the Line?  By what it tells and how.  Based on Johnny Cash’s pair of autobiographies, Man in Black and Cash, it is the story of the young J.R., who survived a difficult childhood, a stint in Foreign Service, and an ill-advised foray in door-to-door sales.  Though we see some hints of influence along his early way, it’s only when he finds his voice that the iconic man emerges.  Even once he becomes recognizable as “Johnny” he must still navigate a course of virtues, vices, specters, and redemption.

In embodying the lead character, Joaquin Phoenix has achieved a Pyrrhic victory of sorts.  While he can only approximate the monolithic build and deep sub-baritone of the original Cash, his performance is evocative enough that I now have difficulty seeing him in any other role.  I’m not as qualified to judge the portrayal of the less-familiar June Carter, though Reese Witherspoon received enough awards to make it a de facto success.

The direction is straightforward, unpretentious, lacking in overt flourish.  Like the subject himself, the movie is not afraid to tell its story with song.  Whether our Johnny emerges through the recitation of “Folsom Prison Blues” or we find a new perspective on his and June’s relationship in their sparring over “Jackson”, songs play a role more substantial than mere interlude-filler.  They build and illustrate the characters whether you find them entertaining in their own right or not.

In fact, as I see it, one could find fault with this film in only one of two ways:  in a general disdain for life or music of Johnny Cash, or in the filmmakers’ interpretation.  While some of his experiences were hardly beyond reproach, simply put, they were what they were.  But seeing as how they can’t be changed, there’s little sense in criticizing.  We have only the telling to measure.  And as far as Walk the Line is concerned, I figure the telling here is as good as it gets, and a fitting tribute to the Man in Black.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations, profanity, substance abuse, and violence

136/153 minutes

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