Walk the Line
Review Date: 11.22.05
Directed by James Mangold, Walk the Line is based on the autobiography of Johnny Cash and features in its credits one of the family as an executive producer. I say this to warn everyone that it's a puff piece, designed to showcase the late country singer in the best possible light-which, if you are a male star, does include separating from your first wife, falling prey to various addictive substances, finding the woman of your dreams, triumphing over adversity and concluding your story-or your days-in enlightened and heroic splendor. So there you have it, that's the story.
In spite of this, I found the movie completely absorbing-with the exception of just how long the downturn in Johnny's life had to last (the movie is about 2 1/2 hours long and it could have been seriously shortened without sacrifice). Partly this is due to the portrait of an era in music that it provides, tracking Johnny's impoverished childhood in Arkansas in the 40s through the heyday of folk, gospel, country in the south, southern rock and rockabilly music in the 50s, culminating in the late sixties when Cash gets clean and gets the girl.
One of the most fantastic moments in the film is the comeback concert Johnny does live at Folsom Prison. This is, though, the only glimpse we get into Cash's edgy political attitudes and commitments, commitments that included calls for prison reform and critiques of the US prison industrial complex, as well as less easy to swallow resistances to Vietnam war protests and, of course, the fervor of born again-ism that, although distinctly present in his work, nevertheless maintains the rough edginess of a seasoned, cynical and secular sinner. He's not judgmental about sin. We don't hear the song about wearing black (though we see him wearing black all the time), a song that still startles listeners with its political candor; we also don't see the late Johnny Cash who deigned to sing and perform the songs of all kinds of rock groups, Nine Inch Nails included (listen to "Hurt," it's really amazing).
What's maybe different about this story from, say, Ray, which never ceases to sound the notes of high fame narcissism, is that however gigantic the ego, Johnny Cash's story is, in Walk the Line, a story of a very very long courtship and an unwavering, smoldering, spark-flying love that was also a deep-founded friendship. The early relationship between Johnny and June, when neither of them is available, practically singes the screen, so swoon worthily does Joaquin try to woo his lady love. Let me say that this may just be Joaquin Phoenix's most wonderful role; and Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter, deftly works her part as tough and witty cookie, soft-hearted country gal with a world of hurt in her eyes, and solid Christian pragmatist, stepping up to the plate (at the instigation of her mother) when her friend Johnny needs to be saved (in more ways than one), and finally easing her pride off its pedestal when he begs her one more time to marry him in front of a crowd of fans at a concert. The most amazing thing perhaps about their acting, is that these two sing all the songs. . . and well.
There are other obvious flaws in Walk the Line, flaws that are understandable once it's clear that nothing untoward must be said about the heroic dead and an era for which, surprisingly, there's some nostalgia; for instance we witness a more innocent moment in the music industry when you might just be able to up and cut a record, and we see a lot of the greats hanging out together: Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison. Notice something else about that list?
Since the great June Carter figures prominently in the film I won't take it to task for omitting some of the girls of the day, but whatever happened to Black music, that music especially that inspired all these guys? And what about racism? With the exception of a single use of the N word we are shown nothing of what it must have been like; though we see the occasional Black musician, there's no sense of a problem at the heart of America in those days. As such, it remains a white washed tribute to Southern music, one that still disavows some of the important and painful struggles of its history, though it does not, thankfully, efface the terrible poverty and suffering from which some of this southern country folk and rock was born. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.