Since Oliver Stone’s polarizing hallucinogenic biopic The Doors (1991) played fast and loose with the facts of Jim Morrison’s life, musicians, or their estates, have exerted much more control over how they are depicted on film. This resulted in films that either skirted around the issue of musical rights by depicting musicians before they became famous (like The Beatles in Backbeat) or creating a thinly-veiled fiction version (like Grace of My Heart being based largely on Carole King). The other option is to play ball with the surviving musicians or their estates, which often results in a sanitized version of their lives (like De-Lovely), but hey, at least the filmmakers get to use their music.
Every so often you get a musician that isn’t afraid to show the darker aspects of their lives depicted on film. Such is the case with Johnny Cash, legendary singer/songwriter with a checkered past to say the least. While rubbing elbows with the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash created music that crossed various genres like country, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel. Fueled by a steady supply of alcohol, drugs and women, the Man in Black garnered the reputation of a maverick within the industry. Before he died in 2003, Cash worked closely with filmmakers responsible for Walk the Line (2005), a biopic that chronicled his early life, so that his addictions weren’t glossed over. Neither was the turbulent marriage to his first wife, which its subsequent dissolution led to marriage with fellow musician June Carter who helped him kick his addictions.
Capitalizing on the popularity of Ray (2004), Walk the Line applies the same plot structure – their lives have parallel arcs and hit the same dramatic beats. Like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash struggled with substance abuse, but was able to beat addiction with the help from the love of a good woman. Unlike Charles, who wanted to be loved by millions (including being a shill for Pepsi), Cash became successful on his own terms, turning his back on the country music industry when they failed to support him.
The film begins with one of Johnny Cash’s most famous gigs – playing in front of a rowdy crowd of convicts in Folsom Prison circa 1968, which cemented his outlaw status. While a room full of rowdy inmates stamps their feet in time with the music, Cash is deep in thought in a back room as the film flashes back to his humble beginnings as a dirt poor sharecropper in the Deep South. As a child, Cash was tormented by an abusive father (Robert Patrick) and plagued with guilt over the death of a brother he idealized at an early age. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) grows up and serves in the Armed Forces and then returns to Tennessee where he tries, unsuccessfully, to become a door-to-door salesman, all the while quietly cultivating his musical inclinations.
This is the film at its most formulaic as director James Mangold trots out the usual biopic tropes – the strict father vs. the nurturing mother and the tragic childhood event that haunts Cash for the rest of his life. This material is important in that it shapes his worldview and provides insight into what motivates him to become a musician and what also fuels his demons. It’s not until Cash becomes an adult and is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix that Walk the Line gets interesting. It’s not that the film breaks out of the biopic formula, it’s that he is such a fascinating actor to watch. There are moments where Cash is brooding over something and Phoenix doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to because it’s all in the eyes. He is one of those rare actors who can suggest a rich inner life behind their eyes. In Cash’s case, it was an inner torment that fueled many of his songs.
Not surprisingly, the best scenes in Walk the Line show the evolution of several signature songs, culminating in the scene where Cash performs in front of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) for the first time. At first, he plays a gospel song done the same way by many others before him. Philips calls him on it and challenges the musician to do something different and that means something to him. Cash doesn’t say much, he just takes the criticism and we can see the anger building in his eyes. Philips’ critique pushes him to play “Folsom Prison Blues.” It is at this moment that Cash transforms from hesitant performer to confident musician. It is also the moment where Phoenix comes to life and so does the film.
Once he meets country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) backstage at a concert, it’s love at first sight, but it’s a courtship that would take years before she finally relented and married him. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have fantastic chemistry together both on and off the stage as they take us through Cash and Carter’s initial attraction to each other and show how it deepens over the years.
The most compelling and heartfelt moments in the film are between Cash and Carter as they clearly brought out the best in each other musically and as soul mates in their personal lives. Phoenix and Witherspoon play well off each other and it’s interesting to see their contrasting acting styles – he’s more instinctive and she’s more technical, but that’s what gives their scenes a unique energy that’s exciting to watch. For example, there’s a scene partway through where Cash and Carter have a nice conversation at a diner where she gets him to talk about his dead brother – something he hasn’t done in years. While Witherspoon is bubbly and charming, Phoenix is wonderfully understated in the way Cash opens up to Carter.
Mangold contrasts this with the next scene where Cash gets into an angry argument with his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin in a thankless role) who doesn’t want him to talk about his experiences on tour or about his music either. This results in an ugly argument that turns violent in front of their children. Meanwhile, he can talk about all of these things with Carter because she’s a musician as well and can relate to his experiences in a way Vivian cannot. Mangold doesn’t shy away from Cash and Carter’s sometimes volatile relationship either. Cash sometimes says cruel things to her, but he does love her and she cares about him. This is evident in the scenes where she helps him kick drugs. Carter sees Cash at his worst, which puts her love for him to the test, but she sticks by him.
At the time he made Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix was a strong actor in search of the right role and found it with this film. He had been miscast in strong films (Gladiator) and been good in weak movies (Ladder 49). Walk the Line is an ideal match with his considerable talents. For all of his understated moments, Phoenix doesn’t let us forget that he’s capable of unpredictable, explosive energy, like when Cash trashes his dressing room in a drug-fueled rage. Mangold’s jittery, hand-held camerawork helps convey the scary intensity of this outburst. It’s a daunting task for any actor to play a well-known public figure and even more so for an icon like Johnny Cash. Phoenix doesn’t look like the man, but he becomes him in other ways, like how he performs in concert by adopting Cash’s trademark moves and approximating his distinctive voice. Phoenix wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation of Cash, opting instead to convey the spirit of the man, capturing everything about him through the eyes, making the role his own.
Reese Witherspoon starts off utilizing her adorable, plucky persona that she’s cultivated for years to maximum effect as Carter, matching Phoenix’s intensity and willingness to immerse herself completely in the role. Carter is the strong, moral center on a tour filled with legendary bad boys – Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. She resists the lures of the open road and constant touring – the drugs and alcohol – that Cash succumbs to and this is part of her attraction to him. It is her purity and loyalty – standing by him even when he hits absolute rock bottom – that is a large part of her appeal for him. Carter is just as stubborn as he is and sticks by him because she loves and believes in him. For awhile it looks like Witherspoon won’t leave her comfort zone, but as the film progresses and the relationship between Cash and Carter deepens, the actress starts to show more sides, like the guilt-ridden look she gives after they have sex for the first time despite both being married and having kids. That last third of the film sees Witherspoon get serious, showcasing more dramatic chops as Carter tries to get Cash off drugs and back out on the road, playing music again. The actress may not have Phoenix’s uncanny, instinctive acting ability, but she is more than willing to give the role everything she has and one gets the sense that she knew just how important a role it was for her and her career.
Walk the Line began with producer James Keach who met and befriended Johnny Cash on the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The musician was guest-starring on an episode that Keach, husband of the show’s star Jane Seymour, was directing. The two men became friends and in the mid-1990s, Cash asked Keach to make a film of his life. After Seymour interviewed Johnny and June, Gill Dennis was hired to write a screenplay with input from Keach in 1997. Keach then shopped it around Hollywood with no interest from the major studios.
In 1999, Keach contacted director James Mangold who was a long-time fan of Cash’s music. Mangold wasn’t crazy about Dennis’ script, which he felt was lacking: “There wasn’t a June story. It wasn’t a courtship.” His producing partner Cathy Konrad felt that the script also “lacked emotional energy and conflict.” Mangold began to write his own script, basing it on Cash’s autobiographies, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography as well as drawing from extensive interviews with Johnny and June before they died: “We pushed very hard to scratch deeper, and to fill in the gaps of the stories.”
In 2001, Mangold and Konrad took their script around Hollywood with no takers because it was assumed that country music wouldn’t appeal to the masses. It wasn’t until Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, agreed to make it. While Mangold and Konrad felt that they had a beginning and an ending, their script lacked a substantial middle section. They realized that it lacked the personal details of Johnny and June’s courtship. After gaining their trust, Mangold and Konrad were able to uncover incidents that not even their son, John Carter Cash, knew about: “My parents never told me that my mother threw beer bottles at my father and his friends one morning.” They also talked to Cash’s brother, sister, manager and his back-up band, which gave them all kinds of details that weren’t in his autobiographies.
The filmmakers were given a $28 million budget, which meant that their two leading actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, were paid a fraction of their usual fees. Before making Walk the Line, Phoenix was not a fan of Cash’s music, did not play guitar and would not sing. However, as luck would have it, he actually met the man when invited over to the Cash house for dinner. It turns out the Man in Black was a big fan of Gladiator (2000) and actually quoted lines from Phoenix’s character back to the actor. To prepare for the role, Phoenix studied addiction and detox including what it does to the body. Even though Cash drank alcohol and took amphetamines and barbiturates, “it was about drinking. You get this great allowance when you’re an actor – there’s an expectation that you’ll be drinking or you’re not real.” After making the film, the actor entered rehab for alcohol abuse.
To get Phoenix and Witherspoon into musical shape, Mangold and Konrad brought in legendary musical producer T-Bone Burnett to take Phoenix and Witherspoon through three-and-a-half months of daily lessons, rehearsals and recording until being musicians was second nature to them. When Phoenix first started to sing his voice “would go high, and I would sound like I was singing Christmas-carol Cash.” After working with a coach, his singing improved significantly and this leant to the authenticity of the concert scenes. This was crucial for Mangold who wanted “viewers to feel what it was like to be on stage, as opposed to out in the audience.”
Walk the Line received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Knowing Cash’s albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to. The closing credits make it clear that it’s Joaquin Phoenix doing the singing, and I was gob-smacked.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “If Witherspoon has the gift of residing in her character, of moving in and living there, Phoenix seems voluntarily consigned to the Folsom Prison of Johnny’s darkness.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris praised Witherspoon’s “transcendent joyousness as a still-growing legend within a legend.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman called it “a big, juicy, enjoyable wide-canvas biography with a handful of indelible moments.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Carina Chocano praised both Phoenix and Witherspoon and how they “crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat it’s a wonder they don’t burst into flames … But the best thing about Phoenix and Witherspoon is their emotional connection, which carries the movie and transcends the material.” However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Emoting plus music does not add up to art, and Mr. Phoenix’s Johnny Cash, after more than two hours, remains stranded in the no man’s land between cliché and enigma.” Finally, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called it “an epic weepie, filled with signs and portents, as well as music. Even more than its subject, the movie may look mean but it walks the straight and narrow.”
Mangold returns to the Folsom Prison concert late in the film at a strategic point when Cash was back on the road to redemption, both personally and professionally. The director does a fantastic job capturing the energy and intensity of Cash’s performance as he goes against the warden’s wishes and criticizes the prison water before launching into a “Cocaine Blues” that Phoenix delivers with just the right mix of defiance and humor. Walk the Line was a fine, return to form for Mangold who started his career with the independent darling, Heavy (1995) and then followed it up with the star-studded crime drama, Cop Land (1997). He peaked with the critically lauded Girl, Interrupted (1999) and then struggled to find quality material, coasting with entertaining, but otherwise forgettable films like Kate and Leopold (2001) and Identity (2003). Walk the Line was definitely a return to meatier, more substantial material.
In what could have come across as a cheesy cliché, Walk the Line climaxes with Cash proposing to Carter on stage in the middle of a song. Phoenix and Witherspoon manage to eschew any cheesiness with an honest display of emotions as Cash lays it all out, telling Carter how he really feels. She can see the sincerity in his eyes and accepts. It is definitely the emotional highpoint of the film as we’ve been on this incredible journey with these two people through the ups and downs of their extraordinary courtship. Walk the Line reminds us how good country music used to be. It is about pain and suffering, not about flash and stadium theatrics from the likes of people like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift. Walk the Line illustrates how pure the genre was back in the day as the influence of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly swirled around together. There is a primal simplicity to Cash’s music that is missing from the bloated theatrics of the newer generation. Walk the Line is an entertaining, big budget studio film that is well-made and a fitting tribute to the man and his music.
Hirschberg, Lynn. “My Name is Joaquin Phoenix, and I Am an Actor.” The New York Times. September 18, 2005.
Waxman, Sharon. “The Secrets That Lie Beyond the Ring of Fire.” The New York Times. October 16, 2005.
Willman, Chris. “Cash Up Front.” Entertainment Weekly. November 18, 2005.