Can’t resist a legend

Despite flaws, any film with the music of Johnny Cash is worth the price

MAN NAMED SUE<br>Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black, performing for some good ol’ prison folk in Walk the Line<i>, a biopic of Johnny Cash’s life.</i>

Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black, performing for some good ol’ prison folk in Walk the Line, a biopic of Johnny Cash’s life.

Walk the Line
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Directed by James Mangold. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Even when it’s at its best, Walk the Line is a somewhat dicey proposition.

As a biopic, it’s fitfully fascinating but not terribly incisive; as a love story, it’s charming and tearfully sweet, but also naggingly conventional. Take it, however, as a hybrid movie-musical—as a romantic melodrama in which the big moments are played out in the performance of hit songs—and you have a Walk the Line that is both flawed and more or less irresistible.

The life story of Johnny Cash is also, inevitably, the story of his marriage to June Carter. In dramatic-movie terms, that perhaps leaves Walk the Line looking more like a show-biz love story than an all-out biography. Writer-director James Mangold (who co-scripted the film with Gill Dennis) tries to have it both ways, but the full cultural richness and complexity of Cash’s story—a life ranging from the Bible belt and the Grand Old Opry to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, from country gospel to “Folsom Prison Blues"—gets little more than brief, glancing recognition.

Parents, Cash’s and Carter’s alike, and assorted cameos of Cash’s Sun Records contemporaries Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips himself, etc.—make brief, distinctive impressions in the movie version of this life story, but only Cash’s coldly stern and stoical father (Robert Patrick) and his regretful first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) figure consequentially as dramatic characters. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and June (Reese Witherspoon) dominate the foreground, with the result that the most engaging and intense elements of the film come from the two stars’ performances, as actors and singers alike.

Phoenix channels Cash’s dark, anguished side with a kind of clenched ferocity and battles gamely with the task of evoking the man’s seemingly inimitable charisma. Witherspoon gives a winning account of June Carter’s spunk, sass and goodness, and perhaps saves the movie in the process. Both do their own singing, and the results, while never in danger of eclipsing the originals, are surprisingly effective.

Patrick is a formidable presence as John’s daddy Ray. But the peculiar casting for various Sun Records luminaries bespeaks the film’s curious tendencies toward weirdly ironic caricature: Tyler Hilton’s Elvis Presley resembles a composite of several rockabilly pioneers, Waylon Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis looks like a punk imitation of James Dean and Jonathan Rice’s Roy Orbison might as well be Buddy Holly.