Johnny and June ‘Cash’ in on a winning combination

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2006

“Walk the Line”

20th Century Fox

2 hours, 13 minutes

With the Oscars breathing down our neck, and with the usual dearth of high quality films at the box office this time of year, I decided to switch gears and review a relevant DVD release this week. Though I would have preferred to see this on the big screen, “Walk the Line” is one of those films that loses very little in the translation to your living room.

Joaquin Phoenix is the inimitable Johnny Cash. Starting early in the singer’s life, “Line” follows Cash through childhood up to his marriage to singing star June Carter, the event that seemingly was the stabilizing point in his life.

Growing up as the son of an emotionally distant cotton farmer in Arkansas proved to be a suitable forge to produce the hard-edged deep gravel the world would become so familiar with in later years. A tragic loss early on provides the formative pathos that so many of those legendary singers seemed to need to become who they were. It says something about strengthening power of pain and also makes me wonder about what sort of emotional events are shaping the “legends” of tomorrow.

As a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, today’s singers seem to find nothing to whine about other than how bored they are.

As Cash transitions from childhood, we see him go through a series of varyingly successful career paths, including a stint in Germany in the Air Force, and as a door-to-door salesman. He marries and has two daughters, but music has always been his first love, and when he sees the opportunity to make a record and get on a label, he seizes it.

The record is a middling success and he and his “Tennessee Two” go on the road, an exhilarating experience for the young musician, but a grueling one for his young wife and two children at home. It’s on this tour that he meets June, a singing star since childhood, and the connection is immediate. Too bad she’s already married, too.

Exhaustion and angst turns to physical addiction when Cash, alongside contemporaries Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, begins popping pills. After the drugs come the groupies, and Cash plays out the depressingly common story of the sexy young singer on the road.

But Johnny had something that most stars his age didn’t have, and that was a friend like June. Her presence serves to keep him from spiraling completely out of control, and it’s that enduring relationship that the film focuses on.

This movie is interesting in that it reveals quite a few facts about Cash that I didn’t know. For example, I had always been under the impression that he actually served time in Folsom Prison. Not so. In fact, his life was somehow less exciting than I thought, which is not a denigration of the film at all. In fact, the film does a magnificent job of delving into the psyche of its subject, revealing the emotional damage he was suffering from, and showing the redemptive power of love.

The film’s portrayal of Cash’s first wife, Vivian, is also handled well. It would have been easier to make her a one-note shrew, driving him into the arms of the much more vivacious June, but instead it fully fleshes her out, making her a very sympathetic character. No one, however, can hold a candle to the warm and friendly strength of June Carter’s personality, as played brilliantly by Reese Witherspoon. Both Phoenix, who is similarly good as Cash, and who does all his own singing, and Witherspoon are nominated for Academy Awards this year, but Reese looks to have the better chance at a win. Either are deserving.

I was very impressed with “Walk the Line” and actually enjoyed it a little more than the similarly good “Ray” from last year. Musician biopics can tend to all feel the same, but both of these films are elevated by their superb casts, and strong attention to detail. “Ray” garnered Jamie Foxx a best actor Oscar, and it’ll be interesting to see if Phoenix and Witherspoon can take that same walk. Grade: A-

“Walk the Line” is rated PG-13 for language and adult themes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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