Phoenix shines in new Cash biopic

Daily Arts Writer
Published November 21, 2005

On Aug. 16, 1977, a life of prescription-drug abuse and exhaustive concert tours claimed the life of an American legend. The King of Rock was dead. But Johnny Cash could easily have been the one to die instead of Elvis Presley. It's by luck alone that he endured and eventually overcame his self-destructive lifestyle. Cash's story, as played out in "Walk the Line," is inspiring for that reason alone - it's a story of perseverance, of admitting and overcoming faults.

"Walk the Line" opens on a cliffhanger, a turning point for the newly recuperated Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, "Gladiator"). The film then drops back, starting with Cash's childhood in Alabama cotton fields and his brother's tragic death. It progresses to where he inks a record deal to become the legendary "Man in Black," touring with musical icons like Presley and Carl Perkins. But with fame comes trials: drug abuse, divorce and, finally, one last shot at redemption in his resilient future wife, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).

Life is a series of ups and downs, and, unfortunately, so are biopics. "Walk the Line" is no different, suffering from discontinuity and a swerving storyline. Yet it remains entertaining and even touching, thanks to brilliant performances from its stars. By the end, the film manages to pull all the disparate threads together, leaving audiences satisfied.

Phoenix's portrayal of Cash is impeccable, possibly better than Jamie Foxx's lauded turn in 2004's "Ray." He has Cash's legendary deep tones and undeniable folk charm. It would be too much to ask of anyone to live up to Cash's vocal prowess, but Phoenix does an admirable job singing all of Cash's vocals.

But Phoenix still doesn't outshine his co-star. Thankfully removed from the irritating peppiness of "Legally Blonde," Witherspoon sparkles as the unshakable Southern belle responsible for getting Cash's life back together. Perhaps inspired by her own roots in Nashville, she shows incredible musical talent; she also sings all of her songs in the movie.

By the time we get back to the opening scene of Cash standing alone in Folsom Prison opposite a saw like the one that gored his brother, he is about to give the most memorable performance of his life and announce his return. Here the obstacles he's overcome and what he is destined to be is finally clear.

All of us desire to become legends, but few ever achieve the immortality of Johnny Cash. Yet there's a profound price to pay for this greatness. For Cash, music was always easy, while everything else was a challenge. It's thus fitting that the film closes not to a song, but instead to a fulfilled Cash spending a quiet afternoon with his family, removed from the guitar and stardom that won him so much but nearly cost him everything.


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars