The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, October 06, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Walk the Line

Originally published 11/22/05
Full review behind the jump

Walk the Line

: James Mangold
: James Mangold and Gill Dennis, based on the books Man in Black by Johnny Cash and Cash: An Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr
: James Keach, Cathy Konrad
: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts

For many years, VH1’s
Behind the Music was like the Law & Order of rock and roll stardom – an assembly line of preternatural rises, swelling egos, sex, drugs and bankruptcies. It gave us the step-by-step guide to the meat grinder of fame. I don’t know if the dearth of musical bios on the big screen is related, but for many years it was a genre filmmakers wouldn’t touch. It’s hard to stake out original territory when every artist of any note has been mashed through the food processor.

We’re seeing the first steps of a rebirth, with last year’s Academy Award-winning
Ray and now Walk the Line, which hopes to achieve similarly by focusing on recently-departed legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), and specifically his long-simmering romance with fellow singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). But maybe it’s because of Behind the Music that the major turning points of this story seem so familiar now, and the main failings of this feature are similar to that of Ray, that by the time we’ve covered all the bases and fit as many famous songs and incidents in as possible, the emotional momentum of the story doesn’t have the air to reach full bloom any more.

Like that other film it’s brought to the screen smoothly and with excellent design by a journeyman director, in this case the agile James Mangold (
Copland, Girl, Interrupted, Identity), and the performances of the leads are downright astounding. But for all the music and energy onscreen it fails to keep you in its momentum, and falls just short of the transcendent drama that was in reach. They’re not going through the motions – they’re too talented for that – it’s just that the template hasn’t been shaken enough to truly honor the uniqueness of its subject.

We get glimpses of Cash’s early years – the alcoholic father (Robert Patrick), the daily scrabble of farm living, the solace he got from his mother’s singing and the radio, and the horrifying accident which takes away his older brother Jack (Lucas Till). In a vulnerable rage his father shouts “Why couldn’t it have been you?” Although the father might forget this, the boy, who idolized his older brother, saw him as confident and sure, grows up remembering it and feeling like a poor selection to be the one carrying on here.

He joins the military and develops a fascination for the inmates of Folsom prison, whom he watches in a documentary film. He seems to know their state of mind – the sense of loneliness and waiting. He woos a girl (Ginnifer Goodwin), whose father thinks Johnny is a weirdo and possibly dangerous. And there’s an admitted disconnect between how much he actually knows this girl and the intensity with which he pursues a union with her.

He wants to make records, but his bandmates (Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby) can hardly play, and legendary producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) tells him that his gospel songs are trite and familiar. It’s not coming from the heart. Neither the music that follows nor the pain of the years to come for Cash would ever have come, perhaps, if he hadn’t opened up that heart and all it carried in it.

Hits follow, and the handsome, brooding Cash is sent on the road with Phillips’ other artists – people you may have heard of like Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and Elvis Presely (Tyler Hilton). All of the live performance scenes (recorded while performed, unlike the more common cinematic lip-synching) are electrifying, but none more so than in this sequence. These are all kids barely into their 20’s, just thrilled to be performing and looking for the next beer, the next pill and the next girl, no idea the cultural earthquake they’ll be responsible for. I want a whole movie just about this tour.

Also piled in the tour cars is June, a radio personality since childhood, and part of a very religious family. She’s going through a divorce, and strangers in shops are happy to compliment her singing and offer their opinions about what shame her mother must feel. There’s an instant impression with Cash, something about the way the two look at each other you can tell they’ll never need to be re-introduced. But she’s wary of him – senses the enormous hole in his life and fears that if she follows her heart and tries to fill it she’ll be consumed.

Both Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own performing and it doesn’t come off as a stunt – both show raw talent and authentically capture the essence of their subjects. Witherspoon is dynamic in creating the down-home comic persona that made June famous, in the scenes of romance she seems less sure, and the connection between them doesn’t crackle as consistently as it should.

Phoenix is mesmerizing – this isn’t the weathered Man in Black that’s become the image of Johnny Cash, this is a young dynamo with a dangerous air. Fans believe he actually is in prison, or at least has served a long sentence. This seems to excite them more – Cash’s wife talks disgustedly about teenage girls who send pictures to relieve his loneliness behind bars.

And we get a full lineup of the famous songs, from Folsom Prison Blues to the title song to Ring of Fire. Assembling the soundtrack for a movie like this is an intense burden, not only because you want to get the “important” ones in (like a “Greatest Hits” album), but because you want to clear space to slip in some hint as to its genesis. So we get clumsy moments like June confronting Cash, who is in a drunken stupor, and accusing “You can’t walk no line!” And cue the tune.

There’s much that’s impressive in Walk the Line, particularly its cast. Robert Patrick sells the transformation Cash’s father undergoes during a long period off-screen, it’s not always easy to maintain character under those circumstances. Sandra Ellis Lafferty plays June’s mother and is almost invisibly perfect every moment she’s on-screen. She creates a whole relationship with very little raw material, just a posture here and a gesture there. I’d say pay attention to her but it might spoil the magic she adds with this tiny, revealing role.

Mangold has the respect for the material to look for the heart of each scene, and he has a sharp sense for where the audience needs to be emotionally. What needs to be wrenching is, what needs to be rollicking is. But biographical studies defy simple conclusion, and while you get a lot of highlights of a lot of different stories about the life of the young Johnny Cash, none of them are ever nurtured enough to support the whole experience. The only way I know how to say it is that a lot of effort and money have gone into making something which is more than just the Cash episode of Behind the Music, but I think not enough more.


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