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November 22, 2005

"Walk The Line": Review

James Mangold's "Walk the Line" is a very good example of the music biopic genre. The screenplay, co-written by Mangold and Dennis Evans, is the standard-issue endoskeleton: early trauma, rebellion, struggle, alienation, success, addiction, love, recovery, and redemption. The story follows Johnny Cash from his rural boyhood to his engagement to June Carter. The script is relatively pedestrian, but it provides a sturdy frame for the acting and the cinematography.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Mangold decided to let both leads actually sing instead of lip synching, a decision that some reviewers find distracting. Pheonix and Witherspoon are competent singers and credible mimics, but it's impossible to ignore the gap between the actors and the real thing. On the whole, I think Mangold made the right choice. The best scenes in "Walk the Line" are the close-ups of Johnny and June performing together. Those shots have an electric intimacy that's unmatched in their spoken exchanges. I doubt performances of the same caliber could have been achieved had the actors been overdubbed.

"I Walk the Line" had pretty good cinematography. Phedon Papamichael likes wide shots with a very sharp focus on foreground figures against a very large blurry background. When it works well, this style creates a sense of immediacy. The shallow depth of field is most effective in scenes based on classic concert footage. You feel as if you're suddenling in the midst of an event you've watched many times from a distance. Papamichael overuses this approach, however and the blur gets distracting in some daylight and well-lit indoor shots.

Reese Witherspoon delivers an excellent performance as June Carter. Witherspoon plays Carter as a strong, smart woman, and perhaps most importantly, as a seasoned entertainer and consummate professional.

Unfortunately, "Walk The Line" makes Johnny Cash's pursuit of June seem almost one-sided. A lot of people disagree with me, but I don't think the movie captures June Carter's lust or her ambivalence towards Cash. We see June writing "Ring of Fire," but the critical context is left out. "Ring of Fire" is about all-consuming sexual passion, written by someone who takes the prospect of eternal damnation very seriously. In a radio essay, Sarah Vowell quotes June as saying that she felt as if she was being burned alive when she wrote the song. For some reason, the movie has Carter writing "Ring of Fire" much later in her relationship with Cash. In fact, she wrote the song while she was still married to another man. "I Wallk the Line" doesn't come close to capturing the intensity of June Carter's feelings. (Listen to Sarah Vowell's Cash essay. The segment starts 47 minutes into the program.)

June is a very well-developed character, but she serves a very circumscribed role within the biopic framework. The story requires a good woman to save Johnny, and that's primarily what Carter's character is there for. This is disappointing because "Walk the Line" is first and foremost a love story. It would have been nice to explore the complexity of June's feelings for Jonhnny in more detail.

Phoenix plays a convincing Johnny Cash. He has the mannerisms down and his chemistry with Witherspoon is terrific. Unfortunately, his character is written as a generic maverick. Unfortunately, the film offers little insight into Cash as an artist. As for Cash's emotional life, the film assigns overwhelming significance to the death of Cash's brother and the disapproval of his father. For the most part, these themes come across as trite and unilluminating. The childhood issues seem more like shorthand for alienation than explanations for the character's motives.

Overall, I recommend "Walk the Line." It's not a great movie, but it's an excellent example of its type.

Other reviews: Scott Lemieux, Peter Travers, David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, David Denby.

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Comments

My only question: does it explore the dark, dark pit that is "Look at Them Beans?"

I bought a three-disc set of early Cash stuff a while back, and my dominant impression was "wow, that's more songs about trains than I need." I think every singer should have 1-2 train songs in their repetoire, and I'm happy to hear 5-8 train songs in any given hour. But damn, that man really went back to the train well a few times more often than was absolutely necessary.

Incidentally, TCM occasionally re-runs "Your Cheatin' Heart," the hysterically bad biopic of Hank Williams (starring George Hamilton!!! Oh, good times), which seems to have a check-list of all the cliched musical biopic elements that it goes through, one after another. Incidentally, you missed one crucial cliche (I don't know whether the director of Walk the Line missed it too): the singer (or in this case his girlfriend) explaining to some fancy city slicker that although they're just simple country folk, they ain't nobody's fools.

Dan, that cliché was refreshingly absent, although it was replaced by the cliché of the producer (in this case, Sam Phillips) inspiring the artist's early work with a declamatory speech about being true to yourself. This one one of the few scenes that worked a lot better in Ray than it did in Walk The Line -- for all its shortcomings, Ray actually does do a very good job of demystifying Ray Charles's music, whereas Walk The Line never really deals with Cash as a musician or songwriter.

I hate to mention it, Lindsay, but you REALLY need to re-proofread that post. You've got all kinds of names and words spelled wrong.

I only mention it because I love you and think you're a good writer, 'kay? ;-)

You're right, M. I think I fixed all the really glaring ones.

Only other one I see at a quick glance: second-to-last graf, it should be "Phoenix."

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to. (We saw "Good Night, and Good Luck" instead this weekend.) But you seem to have a similar complaint as David Edelstein, who wanted the film to explicate a little why June Carter was so drawn to bad boys.

I have a sneaky feeling that male screenwriters have a hard time writing women of the 1950s. I think the only one who's done it successfully in the past few years is Todd Haynes with "Far From Heaven," but even that was more a riff on movie characters than real women.

I'm a huge Cash fan and will see this film shortly.

There was also the criticism by daughter Kathy Cash about how her mother Vivian was portrayed. She said that her mother was portrayed as " basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career. That's not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home" .

Was that how she was portrayed?

The movie is not kind to Cash's first wife, Viv. The Viv character is hostile to Cash's musical career from the outset. She comes across as shallow and not terribly bright, although the movie gives plenty of evidence that her resentments are well-founded. At first Cash is a poor provider who neglects his day job to practice with his band. Later, he starts making more money, but by that point he's on the road all the time leaving Viv alone with two small children.

waring OT,

uhm, will majikthise have end of year wacky posts? (you now, summary of 2005, Best of net freebie/music/movie, 2006 prediction, list of crazy sites to see)

'mkay that's it. returning to normal program.

I saw the movie last Friday. I thought it was quite good. I heard there was a caveat though. I've heard Johnny laid the condition that they could do anything they wanted to him but nothing bad about June could be done.

I tend to agree about his first wife. Viv was entirely too cliched. I think they could've gone more in depth into Johnny's writing. He's written some brilliant stuff over the years and he was a daring artist in many ways but you don't the soul to sing "Hurt" without walking a lotta miles and doin' a lotta things wrong.

I have to say the strongest point for me was the music. I've got a fair amount of rockabilly myself and thoroughly enjoy it. I like hearing the old tunes and honestly, I think I was more into seeing a "Sun Records" concert with the usual suspects like Roy, Carl, Elvis, Johnny and Jerry. Man what a show that would've been.

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