In 1955, a tough, skinny guitar-slinger who called himself J.R Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) walked into the soon-to-be-famous Sun Studios in Memphis. It was a moment that would have an indelible effect on American culture. With his driving freight-train chords, steel-eyed intensity and a voice as deep and black as night, Cash sang blistering songs of heartache and survival that were gutsy, full of real life and unlike anything heard before. That day kicked off the electrifying early career of Johnny Cash.

Walk the Line chronicles the birth of a new kind of American artist who had to move past raw anger, the ravages of addiction, and the temptations of stardom to discover the voice that would make him a hero to generations. 

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Walk the Line begins at the Folsom Prison gig Johnny Cash famously gave in 1968. The camera snakes along the metal fences, around hard-edged corners, to near music throbbing from one of the maximum security buildings. These patient cinematic seconds reacquaint us with the sound of Johnny Cash. We are given a chance to listen to what it is we love about his music. This simple but inspired pre-title sequence says loud and clear: this is a MUSIC movie.

As we're drawn to the strains of Cash's iconic music we soon meet the man in black, played by Joaquin Phoenix, waiting backstage and lost in a still life of intense memories. Seamlessly we travel back firstly to his troubled childhood in rural America, then through his transformation from GI to a family man and incredibly successful country music star.

Of course fame is synonymous with strife (otherwise there'd be no movie). Cash's brings with it a long-term battle with drugs, an unhappy marriage and an elusive romance with country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, in fine form), a woman who eventually would become his salvation.

When they're done right music biopics are divine, and Walk the Line comes close. It is impossible to resist, although hardcore Cash fans may not enjoy some of the artistic license taken with facts here and there.The point is, Walk the Line is a movie, a dramatic reconstruction of someone's life filtered through the saucy medium of film, the infidel of truth and reality.

Based in part on based on two memoirs, 'The Man In Black' by the late great Johnny Cash, and Patrick Carr's 'Cash: An Autobiography', Walk the Line does a great job of capturing what it might have been like to be Johnny Cash, in love with a woman he almost couldn't have, on fire in the music business, and creating a sound like no one else.

Phoenix and Witherspoon are fantastic individually and together. Their fully-believable and credible performances veer from raw, shy and angry to frustrated, happy and redeemed (Phoenix also sings, no mean feat, and does a convincing job). Both reach high for their roles as lovers struggling to find their way to each other. The film turns well-known facts about Cash's life into revelations, transcending the cliches that ordinarily come with these kinds of Hollywood movies.

James Mangold is hands down one of the most film-savvy, smartest directors working in American cinema today, making a relatively seamless transition from indie film (Heavy) to bigger budget studio pics (Girl Interrupted, Kate & Leopold). He does a beautiful job with this his biggest film to date, paring Cash's life back to basics, and punctuating it with grace where needed. Mangold neither patronises the Cash/Carter love story with cliche, nor the audience with ordinary filmmaking.

But special mention must go to T. Bone Burnett's music production, and how the songs he crafted are used and mixed into the storytelling. It is the music that Cash's story its sweet currency.

Details

M
2 hours 16 min

Genres