Walk the Line – Movie Review (***)

(Originally posted on 3-9-06)

I am disillusioned. There is a reason that I do not, as a rule, enjoy Celebrity Biographies. They all follow the same template; difficult childhood, sudden extreme fame with unimaginable privilege, followed closely by seduction and addiction, then the hurt and damaged relationships with those that cared and, finally, redemption through true love. Compelling, eh?

VH-1 had a great multi year run recounting this same formula. I know this story backwards and forwards. I believe that I am absolutely jaded enough to expect it to pop up around every corner. But, really, if I am so jaded, why didn’t I see it coming in Walk the Line?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that Walk the Line is a bad movie. It’s not at all. It’s actually a pretty good one all things considered. It is just that I have had an image of Johnny Cash in my mind since I was little that apparently wasn’t true at all. My image of him was based on the mystique that he created with his music and his public persona – one of hardship, hardtime and hardluck, which of course wasn’t the case. For some reason, I have always thought that Cash actually did start out rough and tumble and spend hard time in Folsom prison. I thought, for some reason (probably PSAs on adult illiteracy that he participated in back in the late 70s or early 80s), that he was illiterate for most of his adult life and through hard work learned to read which helped in the resurgence of his career. I thought his redemption was a redemption from a life of hard living, hard alcohol and hard drugs. In short, I was completely ignorant of the true story.

Joaquim Phoenix portrays Johnny Cash, the iconic singer/songwriter, and Reese Witherspoon portrays June Carter, the love of his life. The movie starts off with Cash introspectively waiting to go on stage during his fabled concert at Folsom State Prison and then flashes back to his childhood where we are introduced to him and his relationship with his distant, unloving father (Robert Patrick). We then follow him through his brief stint in the Air Force, his young marriage to his pre-military sweetheart (Ginnifer Goodwin), his time as a traveling salesman and then his big break as a musician/recording artist with his band.

All of this is fine, the only really major problem is the amount of ground covered and the lack of real detail. In the first case, you get the sense that a lot is going on, that a lot is happening to which we are not privy and all of this leads to the second case in that all of the supporting characters are ciphers. There really is no depth to them. That is not to say that they didn’t turn in a good job, they were decent, it is just that they seemed to be fulfilling a role more than anything else. They were place fillers. Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Cash was ok, but in way over her head and maybe even too young for the role. The children and parents as well were underutilized. No insight was given to Cash’s father – he was just a poor father that treated his son poorly. His band mates just appeared out of nowhere and then faded into the background, not impacting his life.

Of course this is all presented as the wallpaper of his life. None of it is central to the story that is important to him, which is obviously his devotion to June Carter. And this is where the movie didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked it to. There is a great love story to be told here and I just don’t think it was told as successfully as it could have been. We see and understand that he is taken with her, but we don’t see the effect this has on him. Or on her. We don’t see how it affects his art, how it affects his other relationships (other than some perfunctory scenes of his then wife struggling to hold on to his attention). I would have liked to have seen how June Carter impacted his songwriting. We only see him, in a very brief scene, struggle over writing one song – Folsom Prison Blues. However, we see him sing a lot of songs, a lot of them that seem to have a connection with the unrequited feelings he has for June. There is a whole deeper story here that we just don’t get to experience and that is saddening.

I would have been much more deeply vested in that story, personally having a better understanding of what that is like (only, you know, without the soaring fame and fortune, the drug addiction and, of course, the “happily ever after”). I wanted to see more clearly how he continued on, on a daily basis, through what it must be like to have a Brain Cloud (just be sure, if you are ever diagnosed with a Brain Cloud, to get a second opinion fairly quickly….) – to have this continual ghostly presence hovering there behind your eyes but in front of your soul. I wanted to see him struggle to live forward through the difficulty of not being able to get her out of his every thought. I would have liked to have spent more time on her life and upbringing as well, we only really know her through him, but from the tidbits that are shared her life seems to have been much more unique and admirable than his, with a much more difficult situation to overcome. I wanted to see her grapple between her faith and his pull on her. And even more so, I wanted to see a bit of their lives together after finally finding that “happily ever after”.

Walk the Line is not the movie that I thought it would be and therefore doesn’t live up to my expectations, but that is mostly my issue due to my own ignorance. It is a decent film and the two main performances are extremely solid, and in the case of Reese Witherspoon, even pleasantly surprising. The music is wonderful and authentic and raw, which I believe is mostly due to T-Bone Burnett (who was behind the wonderful music for O Brother Where Art Thou and The Ladykillers). It just could have been so much more than the rather clichéd Celebrity Biography that it ended up being.

If you see it, see it for the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon. See it for the Music. But don’t see it to get an idea of who they were and where they really came from, that part of their story isn’t there.

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