Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Joaquin Phoenix……….Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon……….June Carter
Ginnifer Goodwin……….Vivian Cash
Robert Patrick……….Ray Cash
Shelby Lynne……….Carrie Cash
Tyler Hilton……….Elvis Presley
Waylon Payne……….Jerry Lee Lewis
There are many things about Johnny Cash’s life that make him stand apart from nearly every musical artist of his generation, but it was in what would be one of his last public appearances at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards that would leave a mark on any viewer. Nearly every musical act who came on stage, from rappers to rockers, gave their proper respects to the “Man in Black.”
While Cash’s tear-jerking video, an acoustic remake of the Nine Inch Nail song “Hurt” set to images of Cash overlooking his career with certain sadness, would lose to a rather unremarkable rap video it wasn’t that loss that would stand out the most about that night. It would be rap pioneer Snoop Dogg referring to him as his “n*gga.”
No musical artist has the sort of universal appeal that Cash did. And it’s fitting that a year after Ray immortalized gospel icon Ray Charles, Walk the Line follows the life and times of the country icon. We pick up Cash’s life in 1968. Inside Folsom prison, the prisoners are stamping their feet and waiting for their hero to arrive. In what would his signature concert and one of the top selling albums of its time, Walk the Line follows Cash’s career in flashbacks after opening during his most famous moment.
Starting back in his youth, Walk the Line gives us a brief look at one of Cash’s significant childhood moments (his brother dying) before his stint in the military. Played with an uncanny likeness by Joaquin Phoenix, Cash’s life unfolds with a familiar theme: defiance. Trying to seek the approval of his father (Robert Patrick) by nearly any means necessary, Cash marries his high school sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and dreams of being a musician. Rebelling against her disapproval, and the constant downgrading of his father, Cash finds his sound and success and yet no matter what he does his wife and father don’t approve. His wife loves the success, yet disapproves of the manner in which he provides their lifestyle. His father disapproves of what he does on pure principle; Phoenix’s cash is a man of many things, but at his heart is a man who just wants the people around him to accept what he does. It’s no wonder how he falls into the clichÃƒÂ© drugs and alcohol; while it may be the clichÃƒÂ© of clichÃƒÂ©s in the music industry but Cash’s descent into it all juxtaposed against his career makes for quite the movie.
It wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Phoenix. While he dresses and has a strong likeness to the musician, he actually sings in the movie and sounds exactly like Cash. Extremely comfortable with the role and the mannerisms of Cash, when he picks up the guitar and starts playing the resemblance is uncanny. He sounds like the man, for sure, but he brings his best performance to date as the man. He doesn’t play the character; he breathes the rarified air of the legend. Phoenix isn’t the only one to do this as well; Reese Witherspoon is fantastic in her role as June Carter.
While seemingly trapped in lackluster romantic comedies for the better part of her career, Witherspoon shows a dramatic side to her that she’s rarely shown. She’s a strong woman in an era where femininity was defined on different terms; Carter is a woman who has to look out for more than just her heart. Witherspoon brings a strength and class to her that makes it easy to see how Cash would fall for her.
And it would be easy to portray her, or Cash’s story, as a simple biopic. While marred with the same sort of “sex, drugs and rock & roll” motifs that accompany every musician’s biopic, James Mangold infuses his characters with a sense of self-awareness. The audience fully expects Cash to drink heavy and abuse drugs; its part of being a rock star, and with less-inspired direction it would focus on that aspect of Cash’s life. But Mangold smartly focuses on Cash’s desire to win his father’s approval as his driving force while unfolding a good story. It gives Cash a humanity that makes him easy to sympathize with; this isn’t abject hero worship marring an otherwise unique story.