Walk The Line is fashioned as a rock biopic of Johnny Cash, but it isn’t really. Apart from brief scenes suggesting the rags-to-riches beginnings, it is more about the relationship between Cash and his eventual wife, June Carter. It does this perhaps because we have seen the story before; poor boy has musical gift, gets rich, gets into drugs, is restored by love of good woman. The film is strengthened by good, but not necessarily Oscar-worthy, performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Cash came from a farm he had to escape; from the guilt over the death of his ‘good’ brother and a father who thinks music is nothing but empty noise. He goes into the army, marries his sweetheart and tries to make music while earning a living as a door-to-door salesman. His career begins when the man he is trying to impress with his music challenges him to play something that he thinks he would be remembered by if he was dying. In a nice scene, he plays the song with the line, ‘I shot a man in Reno, just to see him die’ and you feel the power of Cash, his singing voice and his powerful lyrics.
(As you might tell, I don’t know Cash’s music. He was someone I associated with my father, so I automatically disliked and gave him no more attention. Based on this film, and Phoenix’s portrayal, and the songs within, I would give Cash a second chance.)
Cash became successful after this incident and started touring and making money, meeting other famous people on the way, like Elvis. He also meets up with June Carter, a singer since her early years, and so begins a long infatuation and disrupted romance. The bizarre relationship plays out against the drug period and rehabilitation, with Cash finally proposing on stage to June, which is a pretty hard proposal story to top.
The two performances make this film worth watching. Phoenix channels Cash well, with a great singing voice, while Witherspoon makes June into a real person; fully formed, intelligent, driven and caring, when she could have come across as annoyingly sassy. Having them sing themselves, rather than mime along to the originals adds a real depth to their performances, recreating some of the aura of live shows to the film. However, the film itself is a routine story that doesn’t include what happened after the Fulsom Prison recording (and proposal), which seems to leave a lot out, suggesting that the story isn’t a particularly fascinating one worth a full film.