Following last year’s excellent Ray, Walk the Line is yet another fantastic biopic of a music legend – the man in black, Johnny Cash. It covers the early days on his family farm, his musical influences, his rise to fame, his addictions and most importantly the love story that led him to salvation.The movie opens with Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) reflecting backstage before the second set of his famous Folsom Prison show. We are then taken back to Johnny’s childhood where times were tough on his family’s cotton farm where his father was less than supportive of his love of music and preferred him to concentrate on working fields. A family tragedy follows which continued to haunt him throughout his life.
Also covered in the film is his famous audition with Sam Phillips at the now legendary Sun Studios where Johnny Cash walked in off the street and demanded an audition. It is at this audition that Sam almost shows them the door after they play a second rate gospel song but decides to give them one more chance asking Johnny to play something that he had written himself. The song he chose to play which led to him be signed and started an amazing musical career was Folsom Prison Blues. Fame soon follows which leads to a family breakdown despite the fortune that his success was bringing. This breakdown was due to a familiar cycle for many a musician of that era – drugs, booze, groupies and too many nights on the road.
Far from just been a history lesson, Walk the Line is mostly a love story focusing on his relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). This union probably saved his life and his career. Although Johnny and June were in close range of each other whether it be on or off the stage, it was a number of years after Johnny’s separation from his first wife before June would trust him enough to be her partner. It seems that she put up with his antics out of equal parts pity and admiration. It took a lot of patience and determination for her to finally make him respect himself and, in turn, make him the man she wanted to spend the rest of her years with.
The two lead performances are career bests for both Phoenix and Witherspoon. Phoenix nails the Cash drawl and his stone faced personality whilst Witherspoon shines as she seamlessly transforms between Carter’s goofy onstage character and her undeniably strong offstage persona. As well as excellent performances, Walk the Line is backed with a strong script, tidy direction, fantastic sets and costuming making it a superior biopic.
Then there is the music (of which there is plenty) which really could have been the make or break factor for Walk the Line considering they were not using original Cash recordings and instead recreating them from scratch. The musical direction from T-Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou) is superb and although Phoenix does not get quite as low as Cash’s distinctive booming vocal style, he does a mighty fine job as does Witherspoon with June Carter’s nasally bluegrass tones.Walk the Line is bound to please fans of Johnny Cash and will certainly convert many people who are unfamiliar with this work after watching this film – and what fun they will have discovering the legacy of music that he left behind when he passed away in 2003