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Movie-Hype00642 - WALK THE LINE

{Nominated for Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon), Sound, Editing, Costume Design}

WALK THE LINE is a Biopic of Johnny Cash’s life, at least the early years. The film is based in large part on interviews with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and two of Cash’s autobiographies. The beginning of WALK THE LINE is so much like RAY that for a little while I wondered if I was watching the same film maker at work. We start with the poor childhood in the South, a traumatic event involving a brother, as a spur to the young boy to make something of himself, and also the foreshadowing of demons to come.

Whatever similarities might exist, though (and who knows whether it’s more indicative of the genre of film or Southern Singers of the era), WALK THE LINE comes into its own as a fully realized portrait of an American Original; the Man in Black, the Outlaw, the Rebel. Well, you’ve heard the stories. Or maybe you haven’t.

I first came to Johnny Cash two years ago, while researching spooky songs for a story I was writing. I Googled several lists of weird songs with murderous lyrics, and Johnny Cash came up more than once, including Delia’s Gone.

Listening to the songs and their lyrics, I was shocked at the violence. What kind of life did this guy lead? More than the violence, though, it really seemed like Johnny wasn’t some evil misogynist. The songs were written and sung with a fierce necessity, enough to make me wonder if some of these women didn’t deserve it. And if you know me at all, that’s quite a leap. How on Earth could I even consider such a thing?

It was this ability of Johnny Cash that I think made him so popular. He was able to empathize with people who had made really bad choices in life. You didn’t forgive them or excuse them, but you understood. In the film, Johnny’s first song is about a guy in Folsom Prison.

When the song goes huge Johnny comes home from touring to see thousands of letters. Johnny’s young wife—his none-too-pleased young wife—explains how many of the letters were from 14 and 15 year olds girls, sending pictures of themselves in bathing suits to help poor Johnny while away those lonely nights in prison.

When I saw that I was just floored. Then I started thinking about it, and wondered to myself, “Hmm….Just how hard is it to play a guitar?”

Much like RAY, WALK THE LINE spares no sentiment for its hero, and shows Johnny succumbing to booze and pills in an almost legendary attempt to ruin his life. There’s also the other women, although much of that is in reaction to June Carter rejecting Johnny’s advances.

I know I should hate Johnny Cash for desiring another woman. And believe me, the movie does not shield the man from culpability. But it was a long time ago, and if there ever was love at first sight, it was when Johnny saw June Carter. That her pursued her for so long without success I guess is a testament to that. (And when he finally got her to marry him, they spend every day together the rest of their lives. When she finally died in 2003, Johnny followed soon after, I guess missing the love of his life.)

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: 3. You don’t have to be a Johnny Cash expert to figure out they had to have compressed/altered some events to make it more of a movie, and the whole childhood motivation thing seems a little suspect, but I’m confident we got the essence of the man.

Genre Grade: Biopic. I have to say, this is even better than RAY. A.

Sex/Violence? There are a couple of hints of sexuality, and more importantly the booze and pills that would make this inappropriate for younger kids.

Family Fare? I think high school and up would enjoy this. I don’t think my dad was a Johnny Cash fan, but I know he’d enjoy the film, the same era and locations he grew up in (my dad was a big singing star too).

Kickassability? Way high. I think Richard Roeper said it best, “Johnny Cash may not have ever been the biggest star, but he was always the coolest guy in the room”. 75.

Pantheon Percentile: I could watch this several more times. 90.

I don’t mean to minimize what Johnny did, but the addictions probably had more to do with costing him his marriage anyway. It’s a strange thing to write of these things so blandly, but with all due respect to Johnny’s first wife, it’s not really the point of the movie. You sort of take it for granted that Johnny’s a Grade A asshole, but you watch him anyway, compelled.

This is the part of the review when I talk about Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. I’ve never been fans of either, although with Phoenix, my reasons are more shallow than I’d like to admit. Well, their performances here are so dead-on that it defies description. I don’t know much about June Carter, but I understand Reese Witherspoon doesn’t sound all that much like her. But who cares. It’s impossible to watch a single scene without being mesmerized by her performance. I haven’t seen all the nominees in the Best Actress category, but she deserves the award if she wins (as she is expected to do).

Which brings me back to Phoenix, who also sings every word. The singing is so good, so…Johnny that you just will not believe it. Even if you know nothing about Johnny Cash, his signature sound was so unique that you’ll recognize it the moment you hear it. Hell, Jamie Foxx, as wonderful as he is, didn’t attempt to recreate Ray Charles’s music. But somehow Phoenix does. Though Phillip Seymour Hoffman will richly deserve his award (he’s the biggest lock of the night), I think I’d be tempted to give it to Joaquin Phoenix, and I never EVER thought I’d write that sentence. The concert scenes are some of if not the best ever in a movie.

You know, my Top Ten list for the year has been more than difficult. I’ve been agonizing for weeks. Sadly (for me), I now have another strong contender. When the Oscar Nominations for Best Picture came out, people talked about WALK THE LINE getting robbed by MUNICH. Well, MUNICH deserves all the honor it gets, but having seen WALK THE LINE, I now understand. This is clearly one of the best films of the year. Johnny Cash would have been proud.

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