Walk the Line
, 05 Feb 2006
This biopic of Johnny Cash (Phoenix) wisely decides not to try and tell the whole story of his life but instead focuses on 13 years between his first hit and his legendary performance in Folsom prison. More important than his career though is Cash's relationship with June Carter (Witherspoon) who eventually became his wife. The music biopic is a popular form and it's easy to see why. The lives of musicians are often packed with incident and more than a little scandal and, of course, there's a built in brilliant soundtrack. Walk the Line is among the best musical biopics. Finding people to play musicians is often difficult; do you go for someone who looks a lot like the person they are playing or do you find somebody to really do the performance and the music justice? Thankfully director James Mangold has taken the second approach. As Cash Joaquin Phoenix isn't an especially great physical fit but his performance is one of such conviction that you never doubt it. As soon as Cash starts performing the other remarkable facet of Phoenix's performance becomes clear. He plays and sings every note himself and you'd never know that, vocally at least, that he's not miming to the real Cash. Where it tells is in the energy of the music, liberally peppered through the film, particularly the first half as you can see a group of people enjoying the the experience of playing music and feel the connection between the actor and the vocals. Offstage too Phoenix is great turning in an impressively layered performance which doesn't gloss over the many flaws in Cash's character. If anything Reese Witherspoon is even better as June Carter. I've long been a fan of Reese Witherspoon as far back as Man in the Moon, Freeway and Election she was turning in performances that belied her tender years (she's still not yet 30) but that actress, so willing to take risks, seemed to have vanished in the last five years as Witherspoon went from one shonky rom com to another. It's an utter joy to see her on such storming form as she is here. Like Phoenix all the music June performs in the film comes from Witherspoon and her voice (while I can't attest to how like Carter it sounds) is clear, pretty and a pleasure to listen to. In the stage sequences she's got a bouncy energy that makes the already catchy songs even more infectious. However it's in the quieter moments that she most impresses. An early scene where she has coffee with Phoenix is a notable highlight but best is her ability to turn, utterly convincingly, on a dime from June's private to her public face. There's real chemistry between the leads and because of that you believe the romance, you understand when Cash tears a sink off the wall in frustration when Carter rejects him and you root for the romance. If there are criticsms to be made then it can be said that the supporting cast (an excellent Ginnfer Goodwin as Cash's first wife aside) do get a little lost in the mix, despite fine performances, simply because the focus is so strongly on Cash and Carter and Phoenix and Witherspoon are so very good. It also sags just a little in the middle when Cash's drug addiction, rather than his music, is chronicled but Mangold resists the temptation to become preachy or to dwell too long on this section of the story, knowing that the music and the relationship are the engines powering his film. A fine film it is too, one which deserves to win both the acting Oscars it is nominated for and to take pride of place in any film fans biopic collection.
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