First things first: Any movie about Johnny Cash thats worth a damn should be rated R. Certainly theres enough death, fire, flood and pestilence in the mans life to merit something more than a PG-13. Alas, the makers of Walk the Line have decided to narrow their focus to something a little tamer, more mall-friendly, more like Behind the Music a redemption romance between the simmering, volatile Cash and his second wife, the angelic June Carter. Knowing that, its possible to enjoy writer-director James Mangolds film for what it is: a flawlessly performed, beautifully shot, reverential tribute to the man and the love of his life. But even non-Cashophiles will get the feeling that somethings been left out, and rightfully so.
As with last years Ray, the script sorts through scores of events in the subjects upbringing, and uses one major trauma the death of a sibling as a framing device. Resented by his father (Robert Patrick) and musically nurtured by his mother (Shelby Lynne), the young Cash sets off for the service; upon his return, hes eager to marry his reluctant, ultimately resentful girlfriend Vivian (promising newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin). Johns barely making rent when he and his car-mechanic band audition for a skeptical Sam Phillips in Memphis. But just a few montage sequences later, theyre touring with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and country sweetheart, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). While Johns puppy-dog attraction to June turns into a slow smolder, hes introduced to the pastime of pill-popping, and later, full-blown addiction. But as any VH-1 viewer knows, the path to love, God and astronomical success is paved with vomit, breakdowns and minor incarceration.
Mangold has chosen to focus on Cash and Carters electrifying stage performances at the expense of any back-story about the songs; the strategy helps the movie avoid cheesy moments-of-inspiration scenes, but it also ignores the irony of how a man whod never been to prison could write so compellingly about murder and crime.
Thankfully, with musical guru T-Bone Burnett on board, Walk the Line has some thrilling, utterly authentic concert scenes, voiced by the actors themselves. Phoenixs small stature and still baby-faced features arent as rough and worn as the young Cashs, but what he lacks in genetics he makes up with a growling baritone and an unmistakable swagger. After making a career out of chipper-but-tough heroines, the role of Carter may at first seem like one Witherspoon could perform in her sleep. But the actress finds a way to tap into the twice-divorced Carters sense of shame, so much so that she makes up for Mangolds inability to explore how someone so sweet could write a song as dark and profound as Ring of Fire.
The movie is impeccably cast, down to the smallest role. Detroiter and Blanche frontman Dan Miller makes a strong impression as Cashs right-hand guitar picker, Luther Perkins; his deadpan delivery and gaunt appearance make him seem like he just walked out of a Coen brothers film.
In many ways, thats exactly what Walk the Line is missing: the comic, poetic feel of a movie like the Coens O Brother Where Art Thou, or even the surreal, mystical struggle between good and evil that you might see in a David Lynch movie. As it stands, Mangold has delivered a subtle, understated, technically accomplished biography, anchored by a pair of revelatory star turns. But as good as it is, the movie will offend no one, and thats the last thing youd ever say about Johnny Cash.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].