Cashing in: Too much walk, not enough fire
The trailer for Walk the Line emphasizes "Ring of Fire" instead of the title song. (In the movie itself, "Jackson" and "Folsom Prison Blues" are the only songs sung twice.) The film should have done the same, not musically but stylistically.
The biography of Johnny Cash– at least the first half of his life, through the age of 36 in 1968– walks a line when it should have had more of a fiery ring. The highs (both drug and career) aren't high enough, and the lows aren't low enough. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) explodes once in a while, but mostly he just broods.
In 1944, 12-year-old J.R., as his family called him, and his older brother, Jack, are listening to June Carter on the radio. Born into the First Family of Country Music, she's already a star at 10. Not long after that, Jack is killed in an accident, and their hard-working, dirt-poor drunkard of a father (Robert Patrick) blames John.
John spends the early '50s in the Air Force. He comes home and marries Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and forms a band with Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby), "two mechanics who can't hardly play." Johnny doesn't do well as a door-to-door salesman, so one day he knocks on the door of Sun Records and asks Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) for an audition. They strike out with a gospel song, and Phillips tells John to sing something he really feels. In a ragged rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" we see the birth of the Johnny Cash we know.
In 1955, John's on tour and so is June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). They're both married to other people, but a spark is struck and they become friends. It's a wonder Johnny's marriage lasts as long as it does. He buys Vivian a house and car, but she complains he's a lousy husband and father, even when he's not on the road.
As the years pass, June divorces, remarries, and redivorces while John stays married to Vivian but drinks too much and gets addicted to pills. June joins his show but still avoids joining John. Vivian is jealous anyway, telling June, "Stay clear of my children," when they meet at an event.
Vivian finally leaves, but June wants no part of Johnny until he cleans up, and it's not until 1968 that she agrees to the marriage that will last for the second half of their lives. The same year he does the legendary Folsom Prison concert that will revitalize his career.
Let me tell you the reservations I had about Walk the Line, because some of the things that bothered me won't bother you at all.
* The reason things don't get more intense and there are no villains in the movie (except an unnamed drug supplier) is that this is an authorized biography, which almost always means boring.
* Anachronisms abound. It seems like we're moving backwards when the fall of 1956 is established, but Elvis Presley, who moved to RCA a year ago, is still on the Sun tour; and before we can figure that out they're playing at a dance for the Class of 1955. June is seen writing "Ring of Fire" in 1965 and '66, when it was a hit in 1963.
* Like everything from Chicken Little to The Weather Man, this is another story of a male child (at whatever age) trying to win the respect of his father. It's the plot of the year, and I'm sick of it. And as Daddy Ray, Robert Patrick doesn't age a day over the 24-year span of the story.
* At his low point ,John is rooming with Waylon Jennings (played by his son Shooter Jennings), doesn't have enough money to pay the phone bill, and can't get it from the bank. In the next scene he buys a house on a large piece of land.
*There are obvious budget limitations, and director James Mangold isn't good at finessing them. The band performs in an "auditorium" in Texarkana that's only eight rows deep.
Phoenix is believable as Cash and does a pretty good imitation, once the man finds his voice, but the script keeps Johnny from being as interesting as we know he was. Witherspoon has the big hair and some dramatic chops but sometimes falls into her usual cute comic shtick. We don't need another Meg Ryan.
The stars do their own singing, and with T Bone Burnett in charge, the music is in good hands. I'm not replacing my originals with the Phoenix versions, but they're not bad.
As biographies of 1950s musical artists go, Walk the Line is better than Beyond the Sea, Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Great Balls of Fire, but not as good as Ray, La Bamba and The Buddy Holly Story. The Oscar buzz has been overstated.