Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix excel in this star-crossed lovers musical biopic
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash), Reese Witherspoon (June Carter), Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Liberto), Robert Patrick (Ray Cash), Dallas Roberts (Sam Phillips), Shelby Lynne (Carrie Cash), Waylon Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis)
Walk the Line focuses on Johnny Cash’s early career, from 1955-1968, culminating in his live performance at Folsom Prison and the tour it kickstarts. The main element in this story is the long-running courtship/friendship/disagreements between Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and their more-than-a-decade-long journey to turn an immediate attraction into a relationship. It’s a very endearing, well directed biopic with a lot of heart at its centre as well as capturing a great deal of the feeling behind the music.
The thing about biopics like this is that they have a standard format, particularly it for music stars: the difficult childhood, the early struggle for success, the glory years, the troubled years (addiction usually rears its head here) before a triumphant rebirth. Walk the Line doesn’t really stray away from this format at all. You also have to acknowledge it was made with the close co-operation of John and June’s son (a co-producer) so there possibility that maybe some of this has been improved for fiction (although there seems no doubt about the strength of the relationship at its centre), even if it doesn’t shy away from Cash’s womanising or addiction to prescription pills during this period.
Well I’m not sure if it is good history, but its damn good story telling. This is a hugely sweet romance, which carefully builds the ups and downs of its central relationship without coating the whole thing with treacle. I certainly found myself very moved by it and deeply invested in seeing the two lead characters finally embrace their feelings for each other. The film does a very good job of establishing the immediate attraction between both Johnny and June, while also carefully demonstrating why it took them so many years to finally be together. It does this without feeling contrived or manipulative, which is quite an accomplishment.
What’s also quite satisfying is that, throughout, Cash plays the “weaker” role – he is the needy one, the one who spirals into depression and moping after rejection, the one who thrives on attention and affection. These traits in his personality are a running theme in the film. It’s a piece of cod psychology to connect these to the death as a child of his older brother, but it makes sense: Cash in this film spends his life trying to find an emotional replacement for this loss, from his over-hasty first marriage to his alternatingly shy and overeager pursuit of June. I also felt that June’s mixed feelings over Johnny – guilt over the attraction, rejection of his sometimes childish behaviour, worry about the public perception of her failed marriages or being accused of being a home-wrecker – also make perfect sense as presented in the film.
If you want to criticise the depiction of the relationship, you could say that it fits neatly into the trope of the female character being hugely supportive and caring over the troubled male genius. However, I think it avoids this – it makes clear that June did consider some of Johnny’s behaviour (both flirting on stage and his drug-taking in particular) unacceptable. At the same time, it also makes clear her affection for him from the start – and in that situation who wouldn’t help someone they care for when he is at his lowest point?
Focusing as it does on the romantic relationship, this film is pretty close to a two-hander. Every scene features either Johnny or June and the majority include them both. Phoenix and Witherspoon are both sensational in the roles. Phoenix’s physical and vocal mannerisms are spot on, but he also seems to have a deep understanding of the feelings of guilt, loneliness and anger that bubble under the surface of Cash, as well as his childish enthusiasm and sweetness. Witherspoon is similarly radiant as June, showing the contrasts between her girl-next-door stage persona and the more complex person below the skin, intelligent and resourceful but anxious about the implications of starting a relationship. Both performances are something quite special.
Alongside all of this, the film is highly accomplished technically, particularly in recreating a series of live performances of Johnny Cash hits. Phoenix and Witherspoon, who do all their own singing, do wonderful vocal and physical imitations, capturing the vibrancy and energy of live performance. Somehow there is something extremely real about seeing Phoenix’s sweating face in close-up, animatedly covering Cry Cry Cry, which manages to get across the excitement of live performance in a way lip-synching couldn’t. The recreation of the era is brilliantly well done – the Folsom Prison sequence is a particular stand out.
Of course this film is slightly formulaic, and yes it tells a pretty safe story of love conquering all – but damn it when it’s put together with as much heart and skill as James Mangold manages here, who gives a damn. This is very moving, stirring material and I defy you to watch the final 15 minutes without a big grin on your face.