"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Was there ever a time when we needed to be told that information? Hasn't Johnny Cash always been one of America's folk heroes, like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett? With the voice of an Old Testament prophet and a head that belongs on Mount Rushmore, Cash was the Paul Bunyan of country music, a bigger-than-life star who became a legend and is now on his way to becoming a myth. Songs like "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line" will be played as long as men and women keep dancing around each other. "Folsom Prison Blues" will forever remind listeners of Cash's Lady Liberty-like devotion to our tired, our poor, our huddled convicts yearning to breathe free. And then there was that whole been-to-hell-and-back thing that Cash had going for him. Not for nothing did the man always wear black. Draped in sorrow, he was ready, at a moment's notice, to attend his own funeral.
And now here's his memorial service, a musical biography starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, the woman who, taking Tammy Wynette's advice, stood by her man, but not until her man had learned to stand on his own two feet. Directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the script, Walk the Line is basically a love story, but no musical bio is complete these days without a trip to detox. And Cash, who handled the ups and downs of the business by taking uppers and downers, all but earned a degree in pharmacy while climbing to the top of the charts. It couldn't last, of course, not in a tale about the redemptive power of love. And sure enough, Cash finally winds up in the lost-and-found department: I was lost, but now I'm found. Yet another morality tale put to music, Walk the Line is about what happens when Saturday night gives way to Sunday morning.
We open backstage at Folsom Prison, where Cash is about to perform his legendary concert for the riotously overexcited inmates. But in the time-honored biopic tradition, a blast from the past ' in this case, a table saw, the teeth of which our hero runs his thumb along ' launches him on a trip down Memory Lane. First stop, the cotton fields back home in Arkansas, where Cash learned how to sing away life's aches and pains. Among the pains: a father (Robert Patrick) who favored his other son. And who wouldn't? Jack Cash (Lucas Till) was so good he seemed touched by God. And his death in an industrial accident at age 14 would cause his younger brother to spend the rest of his life careening between good and bad, God and the Devil. Or so we're made to believe. The movie, having dropped this bombshell on us early on, doesn't do much with it except use it to explain virtually everything.
Next stop, Memphis, where Cash got his foot in the door of Sam Phillips' Sun Records and the whole rockabilly scene. To those of us who got formally introduced to Cash around "A Boy Named Sue," which is about where Walk the Line leaves off, the Memphis years are nothing short of a revelation. The guy liked to rock, on and off the stage. And he could hold his own amid some of the most memorable voices in the history of American music. Whether out of fearlessness or foolishness, Mangold sends not only an Elvis impersonator our way but a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator, a Roy Orbison impersonator, a Waylon Jennings impersonator, each of them doing his own warbling. And in the karaoke bar of life, I'm sure they'll all go far. Here, they only serve to remind us of how inimitable the gentlemen they're imitating are or were, when they remind us of those gentlemen at all.
That goes for Phoenix too, unfortunately. A sensitive actor, he knows how to add shadings to a character, but the sheer thrust of Cash's personality ' the power he projected just by standing there, with a guitar slung across his back, like a bazooka ' seems beyond him. He doesn't have Cash's booming baritone. Then again, who does? But the things Phoenix does to his voice to even suggest Cash's aren't exactly music to the ears. And he doesn't have Cash's pitch and rhythm, his ability to drop a note exactly where it needed to be exactly when it needed to be there. Within the rather narrow confines of his vocal range and timbre, Cash was a great singer, each syllable infused with hickory-smoked melancholy, a lifetime of regret. In comparison, Phoenix seems like a boy sent to do a man's job. He gives it everything he's got, but those vocal cords haven't been to hell and back.
Phoenix does resemble Cash in the face, though ' the high forehead, the squared jaw, the pair of bottomless pits where his eyes should be. He and Witherspoon look so good together, so downright purty, that you almost can't understand why the movie keeps them apart. But that's what the movie's about, June keeping Johnny at arm's length until he's learned how to walk the line. As June, Witherspoon throws on the charm, smiling to beat the band, and it's hard to tell if there's much going on behind that perfect smile. Carter, who'd been in the business since she was old enough to carry a tune, was a bit of a clown ' Minnie Pearl without the straw hat and the price tag. And Witherspoon has the public Carter down, even the Carter-family singing style. As for the private Carter, there doesn't appear to be one. She doesn't have a life of her own, just stands by ' or refuses to stand by ' her man.
There are incidental pleasures throughout Walk the Line, one of my favorites being an offhand remark by someone regarding the leisure pursuits of The Man Who Would Be King: "That boy Elvis sure do like to talk poon." If only the rest of the movie were willing to wallow in filth so blithely. Instead, it lacks flavor, juice, a feeling for the gutter that Cash slid into and out of, then built his legend around. Where, in Walk the Line, is the Johnny Cash who wrote the immortal lyric "I shot a man in Reno just to see him die"? And can he possibly be explained by a dead brother and a resentful father? Isn't that just a little too familiar, a little too familial? Although he often appeared to have been carved from a tree trunk ' stiff as a board, but sturdy as hell ' Cash was busy wrestling his demons every minute of his life. For all its determination to please, Walk the Line can't even keep it up for two hours and 16 minutes.