Country music legend Johnny Cash is such a larger-than-life character it would seem nearly impossible to encapsulate his entire life in one film. Thankfully, director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted) doesn't attempt to make the definitive screen biography of the Man in Black, instead focusing on the peak years of his career and, more specifically, his long courtship with June Carter. One of the riskier decisions Mangold makes is having his leads do all their own singing and playing in the film, with no lip-synching or miming. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon may not look or sound like Johnny and June, but they embody their spirits perfectly. The film hits several of the moments that shaped Cash's life: the childhood death of his older brother, Jack, which haunted him his whole life and for which his emotionally distant father (Robert Patrick) blamed him; his first sessions at Sun Records with Sam Phillips; the early tours with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis; the struggles with booze and speed that nearly cost him his life; and the 1968 Folsom Prison concert that revitalized his career. But Walk the Line is first and foremost a love story, and the chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon is undeniable. Their attraction is even more essential to this story, as Cash and Carter spend most of the film married to other people, able only to show affection in stolen glances and through their music. When Johnny forces June to come onstage for an impromptu duet of "Time's a Wastin'," you can almost see the electricity spark between them like an arc lamp -- it's one of the many great musical sequences in the film. Witherspoon, in particular, is exceptional as the spunky, take-no-bull Carter -- it's unquestionably her best performance since Election. Dramatically, Mangold and writer Gil Dennis adhere fairly strictly to the biopic formula and occasionally take some liberties with the facts, but Walk the Line never feels anything less than true. And when it comes to Johnny Cash, gut feeling is what it's all about.
Walk the Line is first and foremost a love story. Director James Mangold touches on most of the standard scenes people have come to expect from movies about real-life musicians, but the material is infused with energy by two outstanding lead performances. Joaquin Phoenix passes the test that buries most performers who play famous musicians; one never doubts that he is playing a person capable of creating these fantastic songs. That he handles his own singing in the film is simply a bonus. Even if he does not sound exactly like Cash, he is close enough that -- when augmented by the film's outstanding editing and the emotional thrust of the story -- the illusion is complete. As good as he is, Reese Witherspoon matches him perfectly, registering every contradictory feeling in a smart woman forced to play the fool in public. The scenes in which they duet, particularly a scorching version of "It Ain't Me Babe," display an emotional connection between the two that can rival any movie love story. That connection carries over when the couple is off-stage, particularly in a wonderful early scene in a diner where one begins to sense the spark the two feel between each other. Walk the Line is an outstanding love story, a highly entertaining look at the life of a young rock star on tour, and a showcase for two strong young actors to give great performances.
A big, juicy, enjoyable wide-canvas biography with a handful of indelible moments.
A Johnny Cash biopic equally packed with music and frustrated love, Walk the Line goes from compelling to enthralling.