Somewhere out there, in the annals of recent musical history, there has to be a megastar singer with a different life story than this. Someone who’s music is just as legendary as Johnny Cash, who’s circumstances were just as unusual as Ray Charles… and yet who’s life didn’t follow this same rigid, mythic arc of “rotten childhood, meteoric rise, drug-addiction, rescue-by-love-of-one-true-love.” The question is, do we really WANT to hear it?
What I mean is, isn’t the reason we keep telling THIS true story, over and over with new real-life people, that it’s the story we WANT to hear? It’s reassuring, I think, to hear that those posessed of a creative genius that most of us could only dream of having will have to suffer psychologically in order to maintain it… that true love and family are ultimately more worthy and fulfilling than the artistic fulfillment they had sought before. Isn’t this the same appeal that celebrity-glamour-stripping reality TV has? Isn’t this what Ayn Rand was talking about… the instinctive need for the average-and-below masses to see their above average “superiors” (of intellect, of art, of athletics, of whatever…) dragged down to their level rather than working to make themselves among the superior?
Or it could also be that the story keeps working. It worked in “Ray” and it certainly works here. In telling the story of Johnny Cash’s rise, fall and rise, “Walk The Line” does more or less play as “The Redneck ‘Ray”, but that doesn’t make it an unworthy movie.
As I said above, the story you already know: Johnny Cash (Joaquin Pheonix) grows up dirt-poor with a hard-drinkin’ daddy and a superhumanly loving mama. He’s got a beloved brother who’s early death haunts and traumatizes him, just like Elvis and Ray. He forges a new sound in the early days of rock, meets his childhood dream girl in June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), wrecks his own marriage, pushes too far, gets into drugs, falls all the way down and then gets dragged back to life. In between this, he performs famous songs and meets famous people, (Elvis, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others pop up in cameo) and the movie-proper caps off with Cash’s famous live performance at Folsom prison.
Yes, originality was Cash’s strong suit… not so much so this movie’s. The actors are in charge of carrying it, and they prove up to the task. Pheonix and Witherspoon strike a proper chemistry, and that they do their own singing is an impressive feat. Their turns are the kind that tend to (and should, really) dominate the film, but they get backup in a big way from Robert Patrick as Cash’s dissaproving father.
In a way, Patrick’s performance grounds the film in a kind of greater reality than it would otherwise have. The dad-who-doesn’t-understand is a mandatory trope of the rise-of-a-genius movie, but “Walk” takes a different approach than normal: It’s important that, while Cash’s father is indeed abusive, he’s not evil and also not without a certain perspective. His biting, laconic critiques of his son are harsh-as-intended, but he’s seldom actually “wrong.” Late in the film, when he returns one of Johnny’s assaults on his drinking days, he rightly points out that he gave alcohol up while Johnny is still a drug addict. By the end, it can be inferred that the two men have come to undestand eachother, instead of the expected “you were right, son.”
It helps to be a fan of Cash’s music to get into the film full-bore, but beyond that it works as more than just another rock biopic. I’m reccomeding it.
FINAL RATING: 8/10