Walk The Line

***

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Walk The Line
"This film, with its slavish obedience to the genre's tropes, risks making Cash seem all too ordinary."

These days, it seems that anyone wanting to make a biopic must adhere to the genre's new rules, as established circa 2005. Domino and Ray demonstrated that winning the subject's support during pre-production adds credibility, while any risk of subsequent objections to the filmmakers' creative license is conveniently obviated by the death of the subject before the final product is released.

The Aviator, and again Ray, have shown the advantages of focusing on the subject's early rise to fame rather than the monotonous success or, even worse, fall from grace of the later years. And recently, every biopic without exception (including, er, Ray) has gone for the Freud-lite approach to character, rooting its subject's drives and flaws in bad parenting, or unresolved childhood trauma.

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This is the whole problem with Walk The Line, James Mangold's reverent account of the troubled ascent of Johnny Cash, America's black-suited genius of blues, rock, country and "keeping it real." No doubt, his emergence from rural obscurity, via a punishing tour circuit that put him on stage alongside other rising acts from Sun Records, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - even Roy Orbison gets a look in - to become one of America's most beloved and enduring musical legends, was something truly extraordinary, but this film, with its slavish obedience to the genre's tropes, risks making him seem all too ordinary.

Did the real Cash give his approval to early drafts of the screenplay, but die before production could commence? Yes, indeed. Does Mangold concentrate on Cash's youthful struggles to find his own voice and overcome an amphetamine addiction picked up on tour, rather than the stability of his later success? Absolutely. Do Cash's many problems all go back to the accidental death of his kid brother and the resentful disapproval of daddy (Robert Patrick)? You bet they do.

All of which makes Cash seem not so very different, mutatis mutandis, from, say, Alfred Kinsey, Domino Harvey, Howard Hughes, Alexander the Great, Ray Charles (especially Ray Charles), or any of the other biographical avatars of recent cinema. Of course, the actual lives of these figures varied greatly, but the Hollywood machine manages to reduce the lot of them to a rigid set of cinematic conventions that are becoming tiresomely uniform. The welcome postmodern overhaul that American Splendor (2003) gave to the biopic genre now seems all but forgotten, as films like Walk The Line insist on telling it "straight", which is to say, telling it in a manner that fails to surprise, or astound.

Please do not get me wrong. Walk The Line is a very solid piece of filmmaking, with wonderful period detail, beautiful cinematography and a compelling narrative construction that propels events towards Cash's famous 1968 live recording in Folsom Prison. It may even win several Oscars. But despite all this, as a biopic it walks the line between conservative and bland.

What the film does have, however, are two absolutely exceptional central performances. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon seem to inhabit their roles as the damaged Cash and his friend, co-performer and (eventual) wife June Carter, and even though neither actor is a professional singer, or musician, in the many sequences of live performance that punctuate the film they handle their instruments both convincingly and in character, while (incredibly) singing with their own voices rather than lip-synching. Johnny and June, who were both married to other people, conducted their unusual flirtation and courtship over many years within the safe confines of the performance stage, giving their romance just the sort of new spin that Walk The Line could so much have used in other areas.

Apart from that, celebrity spotters can marvel at the parade of present day musical luminaries, or rising stars, who appear in cameos, including Shelby Lynne as Johnny's mother, Waylon Malloy Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis, Jonathon Rice as Roy Orbison, Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley and Shooter Jennings as his real-life father Waylon. And who knows, in future decades any one of them may become the subject of yet another biopic.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2006
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Johnny Cash biopic that feels the lurve.
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Read more Walk The Line reviews:

Josh Morrall ****
The Exile ***

Director: James Mangold

Writer: Gill Dennis, James Mangold, based on Cash: An Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr and The Man In Black by Johnny Cash

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Payne, Shelby Lynne

Year: 2005

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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