It would have been easy for the Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line to be maudlin. But the movie is buoyant because of its leads, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. They embody the gravitational pull, much more than just sexual, that keeps Johnny and June in intersecting orbits through addictions, misguided passes, career setbacks, and failed marriages. As screwed up as he got, Johnny always saw June as his destination, and that pulled him through.
We see Johnny’s hardscrabble roots in a poor Arkansas cotton farming family, singing hymns in the field with his mother, and at night, listening to the Appalachian music of the Carter Family on the radio. His brother Jack, Lucas Till, is supposed to be the talented one. But Jack dies young, and the alcoholic father, played in a caustic performance by Robert Patrick, says the Devil took the wrong boy.
Johnny joins the Air force, and learns the guitar to stay sane. Director James Mangold makes the case that Johnny’s loneliness there became the song "Folsam Prison Blues," written from the point of view of an inmate in Folsom Prison. Mangold’s insistence that Johnny transmuted personal experience directly into lyrics is a reductive method, leaving little room for ambiguity, or for the fact that it was Johnny’s imagination that made him such a hit with the striped shirt set.
Once out of the Air force, Johnny marries and has babies, and languishes under the burden. He starts a band with two mechanics who can barely play. His rockabilly trio auditions for Sam Phillips, Dallas Roberts, of Sun Records. Phillips doesn’t want gospel; have they got anything else?
So he starts into "Folsam Prison Blues." His band has never heard the song before. Their signature slow playing emerges spontaneously from a lack of technical ability. There’s some truth in the hokey scene; Johnny was deeply religious, and Phillips refusal to let him record gospel eventually caused Johnny to leave Sun for Columbia. But in fact, Johnny’s idiosyncratic style was intentional, a natural outgrowth of the two-step pioneered by the Carter family.
Johnny had already fallen for June on the radio, let alone when he sees her in a red dress. On tour together, June comes to want him too, but Johnny is married and strung out, and her instinct for self-preservation fends him off. She says, "You wear black because nothing else is clean, you got your sound because you can’t play any faster, and you tried to kiss me because it just happened? You should try taking credit some of the time."
Joaquin Phoenix will be nominated for an Oscar, because his voice can go down low, and for the way he curls his lip around the microphone. But without Reese Witherspoon’s complimentary energy, the movie wouldn’t have worked. Their pitch-perfect acting duet elevates Walk the Line from good popular entertainment to real love story. And the music is hotter’n Georgia asphalt.
Walk the Line is playing at Showplace East. This and other movie and theater reviews and interviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.