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Film Review: Walk the Line

Dec. 7, 2005

Directed by James Mangold
Rated PG-13
In English, 139 Mins.

Walk the Line is a rocking good time.

The film was directed by James Mangold, whose previous projects include Girl Interrupted and Kate & Leopold. Joaquin Phoenix (Hotel Rwanda, Quills) stars as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair, Legally Blond) is an enchanting June Carter.

The film tells the story of the early part of Johnny Cash's life: growing up during the end of the Great Depression, his failed first marriage, the beginning of his music career, his drug and alcohol abuse, and his relationship with June Carter. The story is told through the use of flashbacks. The film begins and ends with Cash's concert at Folsom Prison

Perhaps some of the most entertaining scenes of the movies are from the early tours with Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Mangold shoots the onstage performances with a backstage pass. Almost everyone has seen a show from the audience, but the sidelines are where all the action is. From behind the curtains, Mangold shows the practical jokes and mishaps that show just what it takes to put on a show, and what musicians are like when no one is listening. There are also a lot of scenes of what life on the road is like, late nights, parties, early mornings, and the loneliness and alienation that comes from never being in one place too long.

Onstage, Phoenix and Witherspoon have an energetic chemistry that lights up the screen. They do their own singing, and their scenes together onstage are packed with energy. When Carter and Cash are falling in love, onstage it comes out when they are performing duets and bantering back and forth. Witherspoon's onstage and onscreen presence even outshines Phoenix in her performance as June Carter. She is honest and comfortable in the spotlight, and not afraid to give Cash hell when he asks for it.

Mangold had Witherspoon and Phoenix do their own singing, after six months of training, and for the most part it works. People may complain that Phoenix doesn't sound exactly like Cash, but I give Phoenix credit. He is an actor, not a singer, and as an actor he sings pretty well.

My only real complaint with the film is that it has a been-there-done-that kind of feel to it. It's another story about a musician with a childhood trauma, who explores the "sex drugs and rock and roll" lifestyle only to find reform in the end. Same song, different singer.

The filmmakers also left out Cash's devotion to the Baptist Church. A few scenes in the film show Cash singing old gospel tunes, and later in the film we see him and June Carter walking into a church after he overcomes his addictions to alcohol and drugs. The film glosses over Cash's spirituality and his using it as motivation for performances such as his Folsom Prison concert. The film, in comparison to Cash's life raises an interesting dialectic. Walk the Line portrayed Cash as being a person with religious roots and, after he overcame his addictions, became rooted in family life and giving back to his fans. In real life, Cash was deeply rooted in the Baptist religion and used that as motivation for his actions. As a humanist, I like Walk the Line's message better: where individuals can overcome their addictions and go on to lead fulfilling lives.

Walk the Line is an interesting snapshot of the life and times of Johnny Cash.

Carolyn Braunius lives in Albany, N.Y. and has just completed her master's degree in English at the University at Albany. In college, she minored in film and has reviewed films for her campus newspapers.

Appignani Bioethics Center