James Mangold’s Walk the Line contains some truly wonderful music in it, and some really wonderful performances behind that music. When Joaquin Phoenix
is shown onstage, doing a wonderfully adequate portrayal of Johnny Cash the screen lights
performs Cash’s music with such wonderful energy, exhuberance and class that those scenes made me smile and yearn for more.
The unfortunate thing about Walk the Line is the music almost doesn’t matter. What’s only important in this film is that Johnny Cash just happened to be a famous musician. The story that Mangold chooses to make the focus of the film is the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter (as played by Reese Witherspoon). This is no doubt a crucial part of Johnny Cash’s life and important to his story and legacy.
The problem with making a film primarily about that relationship is that A) Cash’s music was SO good that the movie underwhelms it while the audience wants more and B) This is not a well done love story. I have no doubt that there was a genuinely wonderful romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter. I also believe that she was mainly responsible for helping him overcome his drug addiction and to help him rebuild his life and career. I also don’t doubt that he proposed to her in very cliche fashion while the two were performing onstage (Cash said so in his autobiography). The problem isn’t the real relationship, the problem is the presentation of the relationship in the film.
As is usually the case with a biopic, the first act of somebody’s life isn’t particularly crucial to the story, and in Walk the Line Johnny Cash is a young boy growing up on a farm with an abusive alcoholic father who blamed Johnny for his brother’s death at a young age. Johnny grows up, leaves his house on bad terms, joins the military, learns how to play guitar, gets married, has a child and gets an audition with Sam Phillips. That’s quite the series of events right there, but biopics aren’t interested in how people got to be famous, they’re mostly interested in when they are famous.
All of that information, from childhood to his first audition unfolds within roughly seven or eight minutes of film. It is vaguely alluded to that Cash was influenced by the hymns his mother taught him, but he has a recording contract and is on tour in the context of the film before we can even comprehend how he got there. In a piece of dialogue later in the film, June Carter asks him how he came up with that sound. Cash’s response: “It just kind of came out that way.” That’s the most that Walk the Line chooses to explore the development of Cash’s music.
What the film concerns itself with is the romance and the drug addiction. Cash ends up on tour with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley. He and June Carter have the ultimate Meet Cute backstage and due to the dreamy far away look in his eyes from the first instant they meet he is clearly in love. I can understand why. June Carter Cash was a true beauty, with a bubbly onstage persona, a strong grasp of humor and a unique talent. Her presence in the room generally brightened it and we can see that through the eyes of Cash. Witherspoon does a very good job with June’s onstage persona, explaining how she developed her personality and humor.
The problem with Witherspoon’s performance is that when she isn’t onstage, the film gives her very little to do. We don’t understand the motivations of the woman, why she might be in love with someone who is as big of a trainwreck as Johnny Cash or even what her background is. I know her background because I know the real story, but the film only vaguely alludes to it. June Carter is in this movie to brighten up the stage and fall in love with Johnny Cash. While the movie gives Witherspoon little to work with apart from the live music, she can be thankful that she wasn’t stuck playing Cash’s ex-wife Vivian, which turns out to be one of the most thankless roles in film history.
I felt worse for Vivian Cash than anyone else in this film and she wasn’t even a moderate protagonist. Here is a woman that was begged to be married by a man she barely knew, was left in a thankless, loveless, absent relationship her entire life, had to raise her children almost completely on her own and had to do all of this while her husband was on the road turning into a rock star, abusing his body with pills and liquor and cheating on her whenever he got the chances.
In Walk the Line Vivian shows up at just the right times to catch Johnny doing something he shouldn’t, and to leave him when she should. There is no sympathy for this character, she’s just a plot device who needs to be disposed of so we can get what (the filmmakers) think we really want: Johnny Cash and June Carter falling in love. How about the kids who grew up without a father? Or the wife who had to explain it? I understand that Cash and Carter were meant to be together but the treatment of his ex-wife in this film almost made me generally dislike the protagonist.
And why exactly does June fall in love with this man? She seems to be a fan of his music and enjoys performing onstage with him, but the film gives them little dialogue to work with. There’s nothing that stands out between them that makes me feel like this is one of the great epic romances of all time. As Cash’s addiction spirals out of control in the film his behavior gets worse and worse as does his treatment of everyone around him. June seems like little more than a nice girl.
What’s the connection there? There is simply no chemistry between the two characters when they are not on stage. When they are performing together it is vibrant and wonderful. When they’re locked in a hotel room teasing each other with peanuts after a conveniently edited out sex scene I’m bored and feel like I’m watching a scene from some kind of bad romantic comedy. Johnny Cash is simply not an attractive, likeable person in this movie, he just makes some really good music.
Joaquin Phoenix certainly must be commended for his performance. He nails Johnny Cash’s accent and swagger. His live performances of Cash’s music are stunning in their authenticity and the way he acts onstage and handles the guitar is spot on. His depiction of a man so ripped apart by the abuse of barbituates and alcohol is also outstanding. As he gets further and further into addiction, he physical look grows increasingly unstable and his mannerisms and language decline as well. It’s an epic performance, worthy of all the praise it’s getting but do we like this character?
All that is essentially said about Johnny Cash in this film is that he became famous, became a drug addict, fell in love with the right woman and straightened his life out. That’s it. There’s nothing about how he developed his own unique sound, his impact on the music industry, his impact on pop culture in general or his importance as a historical figure. Fame, addiction, love, recovery. That’s the movie they chose to make. It’s a fine formula, but it’s the formula of just about every other movie ever made. There is a great story about the life of Johnny Cash.
There is some great music in this film. In one of the climactic scenes, his famous concert in Folsom Prison he defies authority, shouts out lyrics, empathizes with the inmates and acts like the rebellious man in black that I have so much admiration for. To reduce his life into a love story this unconvincing, banal and pointless is do an injustice to me as a moviegoer, not to mention to Cash as an artist.