Into the ring of fire with Johnny Cash

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Into the ring of fire with Johnny Cash


“Walk the Line,” the new biopic about Johnny Cash, is a very good film, with two of the very best performances of the year from its leads, Joaquin Pheonix and Reese Witherspoon. When Phoenix first utters that signature line, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” you’d think Cash had risen from the grave.
The film opens in Folsom Prison, one of America’s first maximum security jails, where Cash recorded his most famous live album. Then it leaps back in time to guide us through what led to that powerful performance.
The childhood death of Cash’s older brother Jack (Lucas Till) in a wood shop accident in 1944 shapes the film’s exploration of Johnny (Joaquin Pheonix) as a man caught between right and wrong. We see Cash in the Air Force, plucking out chords in a deserted hangar in Germany, then in Nashville as a failing door-to-door salesman trying to get his music heard.
But these are all a preview to the main event: Cash’s rise like a rocket onto the national musical stage and his long relationship with his tour partner, best friend and finally wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Witherspoon and Pheonix are total opposites; the former a bright, free spirit and the latter a brooding, enigmatic presence.
Both put on great performances. Phoenix traces the arc of Cash’s life perfectly from desperate young musician to unhappy celebrity. His awkward mannerisms and unaffected voice capture the sometimes self-destructive humility of his subject. Witherspoon creates wonderful chemistry with Phoenix, making believable Carter’s conflicted emotions of frustration, empathy, love and pain.
Witherspoon and Phoenix also provide their own vocals, and their musical performances are spot-on. When the credits roll and the real Johnny Cash starts singing, it’s almost hard to notice.
Still, it all seems a little conventional. Haven’t we seen this tale of drug-addicted celebrities saved by love before?
From the film, you’d think it was exclusively Cash’s devotion to June Carter and vice versa that saved him. But there’s a big factor that’s been downplayed: Cash’s Christianity. Save one short scene outside a church, there’s nothing to suggest Cash underwent a religious conversion at all. There’s nothing at all about the idealism that sustained him in later life.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with cutting out certain parts of a biopic. One could hardly include it all, and there’s enough here to make it clear this was simply a space issue, not a decision made by executives motivated by political correctness.
With much of the rest of the film about Cash’s struggle to be a better man, however, the eschewal of the classic American theme of Christian revival, of finding forgiveness and starting again with a clean slate, is squandered potential. As it stands, there’s little beside fantastic performances to set “Walk the Line” apart in its genre.
Although it could have been more, “Walk the Line” is still a definitive chronicle of Cash’s life, and a must see for fans. Phoenix and Witherspoon are dynamite. And Cash would be happy to see a man in black in the spotlight again.

Walk the Line
Biography / English
136 min.
Opens Thursday

by Ben Applegate
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