Walk The Line

3 stars


2nd March 2006

There's a certain macabre quality to how quickly society latches onto dead rock stars and posthumously elevates them to the status of Gods. Johnny Cash is one such case: largely ignored by an apathetic general public and often snubbed by the industry he helped to shape, it was only once he passed in 2003 that his albums sales rocketed, teens began to wear t-shirts adorned with his cragged face and celebrities like Justin Timberlake started giving him shout-outs from the MTV Awards. While the movie biopic of his life was already in production before both Johnny and his wife June died, there's a certain sense of suspicion lingering around Walk The Line, not least because of the huge success of Ray at last year's Oscars. Is this another attempt from Hollywood to piggyback the surge in popularity of a deceased legend in order to take home the gold?

To be fair, the life of Johnny Cash is the kind of story that usually collects gongs by the armful. Raised in a shotgun shack by his father, Cash had to cope with the loss of his brother at a very young age, and retreated to the sanctity of the radio when his father would take out his rage on the family. After a short stint in the Air Force, young JR returned home (looking suspiciously like Joaquin Phoenix to boot) with his guitar and some bitchin' tunes. Together with his mechanic band buddies, it wasn't long before they cut their first record and Cash's talent was recognised, coinciding with the birth of American rock and roll. Walk The Line doesn't walk you through Cash's entire life story, but it does accompany you through his drug-fuelled tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and a young man named Elvis Presley, his love affair and eventual marriage to fellow singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and culminates with one of his finest moments, the incredible live show at Folsom Prison.

Walk The Line does just that - it treads very carefully and doesn't stray from the typical biopic story arc, and given Cash's anarchic career and private life, it's a shame that a film of his legacy be quite so formulaic. Johnny starts with nothing, finds he has a talent and shares it with the world, almost loses it all to drugs until the love of a good woman sets him right - you can almost hear the gravelly Voiceover Guy in your head when you realise just how much Cash's life has been simplified. That's not to say that it's not a fun ride while it lasts (it's an arse-pleasing 2 hours with little flab) and the toe-tapping soundtrack is always a joy, but you can't help but think the Man in Black's life has been through the studio washer a few too many times and come out grey. If, like me, you're not exactly the world's greatest Johnny Cash fan (my first introduction to him was when he appeared on The Simpsons, playing an imaginary coyote) then it's still an enjoyable enough yarn, albeit one that only knows the same three chords.

While the film itself may not quite be worthy of an Oscar nod, Walk The Line's two main leads are highly deserving of their nominations. Phoenix is magnificent and settles into the role early, playing Cash as a fresh-faced but naive youngster at first, before alcohol and narcotics begin to take hold and he spirals into a period of self-loathing. It's been well documented just how far Phoenix went to get into character - the artist formerly known as Leaf not only learned how to play the guitar for the role, but also sings every note you hear - and even if you find his claims that the playing the character sent him to rehab ever-so dubious, there's no denying it's a dynamic performance, rife with energy and deserving of empathy. Witherspoon is equally comfortable as June Carter, a soul about a million miles away from the tawdry rom-com roles Reese seems determined on racking up - with a southern twang and a smile that could melt the polar ice caps, she's finally found a character that doesn't make you want to throw up in your mouth. One grumble, however: the fact that John and June will get together is never in doubt, and makes the constant bickering between the two a little grating after a while, especially when it's blindingly obvious they want to jump each others' bones from the get-go.

There are plenty of nice little touches throughout Walk The Line that will appease both long-time fans and those new to the world of Cash - the spine-tingling first performance of Folsom Prison Blues in the recording studio for the former and some quite excellent drunken pratfalls from Phoenix for the latter. Ultimately, however, you get the feeling you're being kept in the dark about much of Cash's private life and are only seeing what the studios deem appropriate (even squares like David Cameron have past drug problems, Disney characters will be doing it next). Considering it's chronicling the life and times of an outspoken man who quite literally gave the music industry the finger, Walk The Line often seems all too-willing to compromise and kowtow to those that bankrolled it. The most fitting legacy to Cash's career continues to be his music and not his movie, but you'd be wise to check out both.

More:  Drama  Romance  Biopic  Music
Follow us on Twitter @The_Shiznit for more fun features, film reviews and occasional commentary on what the best type of crisps are.
We are using Patreon to cover our hosting fees. So please consider chucking a few digital pennies our way by clicking on this link. Thanks!

Share This