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film review ***: Walking Back Along a Lovely Line

Joaquin Phoenix Sings a Convincing Johnny Cash

By Brian Chase

Walk the Line

Directed by James Mangold

Written by James Mangold and Gill Dennis

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

Rated PG-13

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As the Baby Boomers get older, motion pictures that bring up nostalgic memories of their youth become more prevalent. A few years ago, it was cartoons from their childhood like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “George of the Jungle”; nowadays, it is biopics of the musicians they grew up listening to. Last year’s “Ray” and the newly released Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” are the two prime examples. And while “Walk the Line” features some wonderful acting, singing, and cinematography, it suffers somewhat by largely ignoring the unique parts of Cash’s life and instead emphasizing struggles that have already been depicted from the lives of other artists.

As VH1’s “Behind the Music” eventually discovered, many musicians’ life stories are roughly the same. They experience tough times in childhood, they get their big break, they become famous and turn to some drug of choice. Then they have affairs on the road, get divorced or go through marital struggles, their drug use either sends them to an early grave, or some crisis convinces them to get clean, and they come out more centered. All of these elements are present in “Walk the Line,” but while they make for great drama and emotional struggle, they lose some of their impact through apparent lack of freshness. For someone who has seen “Ray,” “Walk the Line” may seem repetitive, giving the audience a distant sense of d j vu.

The plot draws its material from Cash’s autobiography. The central focus is Cash’s relationship with his eventual wife June Carter, but the rest of the film needs fresher material. Reality, in this case, is more boring than fiction. If the movie’s writer and director James Mangold were really thinking, he would have emphasized the elements that made Cash’s life different from other musicians’.

Johnny Cash was in love with June Carter almost from the moment he laid eyes on her, and his years-long struggle to be with her despite their existing marriages form the core of “Walk the Line.” The stellar performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Cash and Carter make this relationship deeply touching. Moreover, Phoenix and Witherspoon actually performed the singing in this film, in contrast to the arrangements for “Ray.” The most stunning achievement of the movie is that Phoenix and Witherspoon can actually sound like Cash and Carter using their own voices. True, Phoenix never quite gets the wonderful gravely resonance that Cash has on the low notes, but at least he can hit them. Witherspoon’s voice is a little higher and weaker than Carter’s, and she never quite gets Carter’s warmth or timbre, but her voice is still stunning. These musical performances are the best in a film since “Moulin Rouge.”

The emotional and physical acting was just as good as the singing. Phoenix does a lot with the closed-mouth Cash, using his face and body language to easily convey different moods. The audience first sees him studiously observing a buzzsaw in Folsom Prison, where Cash performed live for the prison population. Even though he doesn’t speak, the audience can feel the significance of the saw just by reading his features and his eyes.

As for Witherspoon, she has the ebullient, wisecracking stage presence of Carter down pat, so well that it makes me think that was the reason she landed the role. She also does a great job with facial expressions: a particularly good one appears when Cash’s wife tells her to “stay away from my children.” Witherspoon’s sadness and understanding are unspoken and evident. However, Witherspoon cannot quite pull off the most emotionally wrenching moments. A scene in which she breaks down crying in her car comes off as hokey. Even so, it is good to see her get a role she can actually act, instead of just fluffing her way through.

The film’s cinematography is effective, providing close-ups on the microphone when Cash is performing and wide shots of a dusty Mississippi road. We see a few particularly memorable moments throughout, such as Cash touring with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and abusing substances with them (the actor playing Lewis steals all his scenes). The best gag in the movie involves some good old-fashioned southern shotgun use. Ultimately, “Walk the Line” is like your mom’s pecan pie — it’s nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.