You can’t compare Johnny Cash to anybody, but you can’t help but compare WALK THE LINE to the movie RAY. There aren’t many truly great musician biopics, if any, and they all end up being about the same shit. If you’re a legendary musician it’s pretty much guaranteed that you struggled for a while, got a lucky break, became a superstar, cheated on your wife, then had a drug problem that fucked up your career and relatinships for a while. Then you either died tragically or kicked the drugs. (One exception: small plane crashes.) In the case of both Ray and Johnny they kicked the drugs. But just because they didn’t die young doesn’t mean they had it easy. According to the movies, both had a brother who died when they were kids and were haunted by it for the rest of their lives.
Both RAY and WALK THE LINE benefit from great performances by celebrities playing other celebrities, but in the case of RAY I think without that performance you’d just have a pretty good TV movie. WALK THE LINE is a better movie even if the imitation is not quite as uncanny. (These actors did go the extra mile though and record all the songs themselves. It’s weird because you know it’s not the real John and June but you do know it’s the same John and June you’ve heard talking to each other so it seems to work.)
The only thing RAY has over WALK THE LINE is it has Warwick Davis from LEPRECHAUN in it. It’s a shame they couldn’t work him into this one somewhere but other than that oversight this is a good movie.
Maybe a better comparison than RAY or LEPRECHAUN is ALI. Because that’s more the kind of figure we’re dealing with here. I don’t give a shit about boxing or country music but both these guys are heroes to me and I know I’m not the only one. They’re icons, they’re symbols, they’re rebels. And like Ali, it’s gonna be hard to come up with an actor who looks like Johnny Cash, and nobody’s gonna have the same presence. Especially not some dude from GLADIATOR with a big scar on his upper lip. But the switcheroo works better than it did in Ali. Joaquin Phoenix does a great job reinterpreting Johnny Cash into a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix.
One thing that makes this better than the average biopicture is that it’s focused on the love story between Johnny and June Carter Cash. If you don’t come up with a central theme in something like this you’re just gonna have an illustrated timeline with occasional shooting up and yelling/breaking things montages. This still has a little bit of that feel but it’s mainly about Johnny and June. Even in the childhood scenes at the beginning we see li’l Johnny Cash listening to the Carter family on the radio and being able to identify June’s voice.
Some of Johnny’s kids with his first wife are mad because their ma is portrayed as a nag who doesn’t believe in his career (she only gets about one scene where she gets along with him). I can sympathize, but you know, dramatic purposes and what not. It’s kind of profound in a tragic kind of way because it’s gotta be wrong for Johnny to cheat on his wife with June, but of course he ended up staying with June until they died and she straightened him out. She was clearly the love of his life. So that’s what the movie is about. Apparently the writer/director James Mangold convinced Johnny Cash to tell him how they first got together, something he’d never discussed publicly, even in the books this movie is based on. So this here’s the inside scoop.
I like the structure. It starts out with a beat thumping through Folsom Prison 1968 as Johnny sits off stage taking a break from that legendary concert, contemplating his life. That’s the wraparound story so at the end it comes back to the Folsom concert and he starts playing and I just expected it to fade into the credits. But there’s some unfinished business to take care of with June so then the movie actually continues a little bit after the obvious fade out point.
And I like how much of the movie is music. It goes without saying that there’s gonna be music in a movie about musicians, but it seems like this one spends more time on full musical numbers than most. And there’s always some drama going on during the performance. It’s almost a musical.
It doesn’t hurt that one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, “Folsom Prison Blues,” is the most important song to the plot. We see him strumming a guitar and writing the song in a big empty hangar while in the Air Force. Then later when he’s auditioning and his gospel song flops, he pulls that one out of his ass and history is made. I’m sure that story is bullshit, but I’m gonna pretend it’s real because I like it. (“San Quentin” isn’t heard, since the movie ends in 1968.)
Reese Witherspoon wins back some credibility after doing all those stupid romantic comedies with wacky dogs and ghosts and cartoon southerners. She has a complex character who has to be funny and charming on stage but strong enough offstage to push Johnny out of his drug problem. You see that Jim Morrison, et al? All you needed was a good woman, it turns out. Sorry bud. If this was a fictional story it would be corny as hell, almost offensive, but since we all know it happened, hooray for June Carter Cash.
It took me forever to write this review, I’m not sure why. But the movie really stuck with me over the weeks I was procrastinating so that says something. I don’t think this is a great movie, but it’s a good movie and it has a broad appeal. And by “broad appeal” I don’t mean “morons love this shit.” It has a broad appeal because it’s about one of those rare dudes that just about everybody likes. I mean, who doesn’t like Johnny Cash, given half a chance? I’ve talked to all kinds of people who have seen this movie and I haven’t found anybody that didn’t like it yet. Of course, with my luck you’re gonna go see it based on my recommendation and you’re gonna be the one that hates it. So I apologize.
TRIVIA: There’s a John Frankenheimer movie that uses a bunch of Johnn Cash songs on the soundtrack, and it’s called I WALK THE LINE. That probaly explains why this one dropped the ‘I’.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.