I admit that I knew very little about Johnny Cash before I saw Walk the Line. I am not a country music fan and the only exposure I’ve ever had to Mr. Cash was courtesy of a news broadcast following his passing in 2003 and possibly through other music related news prior to that event. To put it simply, I was clueless about the man.
Walk the Line is the biographical tale of the life and times of one of America’s greatest country music singers, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). Telling the story of his life from his early days living on a cotton farm to his rise as a legend, it chronicles the events, people and experiences that made him “The Man in Black”.
Walk the Line provides a well made – although somewhat short – account of Cash’s life and I can say that I am now much more informed as a result of having seen it: That being the point of a biographical film I suppose.
However, in having learnt something about the man, I also became aware that there was a lot more that I would have liked to have known to truly have enjoyed this film. There’s a problem with Walk the Line that I think the majority of people in their twenties, and younger, will become aware of while watching it. ‘Problem’ is possibly the wrong word; it’s more like a hindrance. Yes, a hindrance to experiencing the film the way it should be.
Walk the Line provides no frame of reference for a younger generation as to what Johnny Cash looked like, how he performed and the way in which he spoke and carried himself in real life. I wanted to be able to draw parallels between mannerisms, singing voice, speaking voice and the gestures of both Cash (the real man) and Cash (as portrayed by Phoenix). Without this reference to ‘the real’ – a small clip of him performing in the opening credits would have been perfect – the imaginary wasn’t nearly as potent as it could have been. Phoenix does a fantastic job, as can be expected, and I’m not trying to take anything away from his performance or his Golden Globe win by pointing this out. I was just aware of it throughout the film.
As good as Phoenix is – and he is good – Witherspoon is better, easily stealing the show. As the always upbeat and smiling June Carter her performance radiates with such warmth and energy that you’ll want to jump on stage and sing along the first time you see her. Her performance is a strong contender for the Best Female Actor Oscar, and it should come as no surprise that she walked off with a Golden Globe. It’s when both performers come together that Walk the Line’s real strength comes to the fore. Phoenix’s dark and brooding Cash is complemented perfectly by Witherspoon’s happy-go-lucky Carter. They are a stellar screen couple.
But, even with all these wonderful elements I found that Walk the Line was a little on the bland side when it came to dramatic conflict and drive. I in no way mean to discredit Johnny Cash’s life with that statement, but the story and the way that it’s been conceived here seem more appropriate for a high-end television movie rather than a Hollywood film. It just doesn’t feel epic enough for the big screen.
Certain aspects of Cash’s life – like the fact that he was one-quarter Cherokee Indian, and that he had a Grammy winning comeback career in the late 90s – have been left out, and the film’s conclusion comes in the middle of his life, making it really only half a biopic.
Walk the Line is a competently made film that I did enjoy but found lacking in certain areas. Fortunately, it is carried by the stellar performances of its two stars and their own singing throughout the film. It won’t disappoint, especially if you’re fond of Cash, but the younger generation oblivious to who he was as a man may have some trouble when it comes to experiencing this film the way it should perhaps be experienced.