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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Review of Walk The Line

There's a moment in the music video of "Hurt" that has anguished me to look at from the first time I saw it. June Carter Cash - just months before passing away - watching her husband Johnny sing his balladic paraphrase of Ecclesiastes. If you've seen the video, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, do whatever it takes to see it. It's been called the most haunting music video ever: when Trent Reznor - the originator of "Hurt" - saw this, it made him break down sobbing.

The look on her face... man, how do I describe this? It's like she's trying to tell him "Johnny, why are you doing this to yourself?" Johnny Cash, in the twilight of his life, reflecting on empty materialism and the inevitability of loss. Brief flashes from his legendary career: tender moments with June to the bars of Folsom Prison. Bits of action like jumping on moving trains and his movie roles: "Stay the hell away from me you hear!" The video closes with Cash's fingers resting on a piano, closing the cover over the keys. Almost like a coffin lid.

They say that some people preach their own sermon. With "Hurt", Johnny Cash sang his.

I watched "Hurt" yesterday afternoon, just before leaving for the theater with Lisa and Dad - who I said before is just about as big a Johnny Cash fan as they come - to catch the new Cash biopic Walk The Line. Don't know why I did that. I could have listened to some of his songs. One of my favorites is "Sunday Morning Coming Down": only Cash could have sung about having a hangover so well. Or listened to "Ring of Fire" or "I Walk the Line". Something from the height of his career. Instead I chose to watch him reflect on his life for what was to have been the final time. Guess I wanted to examine him from both extremes of his chronology yesterday afternoon. And, I think it had a lot of that effect. Maybe starting it out with something so admittedly depressing is what made me leave Walk The Line believing that in the end this movie is something so powerful and uplifting. About things like life and love, and redemption for one's self.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line depicts the first thirty-odd years of Cash's life, from growing up in rural Arkansas up to the beginning of his marriage with June Carter. The film opens in 1968, minutes before Cash (Phoenix) began recording his live concert at Folsom Prison. A table saw in the prison's woodshop triggers a flashback in Cash's mind: 1944 and a young J.R. Cash listening with his brother Jack to the Carter Family on the radio, with Johnny picking out 14-year old June's voice. We are introduced to Johnny's father Ray - played by Robert Patrick, who has come a long way as an actor from an already great role he had as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day - and mother Carrie (Shelby Lynne). It's not long afterward that we witness the event that dwelled on Cash's mind for the rest of his life: brother Jack nearly cut in two by the table saw in the woodmill that he worked in, lingering long enough to tell his family about seeing Heaven.

From there we watch as Cash enlists in the Air Force in 1950, where stationed in Germany he begins writing some of his first songs, including "Folsom Prison Blues" after watching a movie about the place. He uses time for calls back home to try and woo young love Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) into marriage. Upon return to the states the two marry and live in Memphis, where Cash struggles to both make it as a salesman and fulfill his dream of being a musician. Accompanied by Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, the "Tennessee Two" (played by Dan John Miller and Larry Bagby), the trio summons up the nerve to approach Sun Records about cutting an album. The execs tell Cash that his style of gospel just won't sell, that he needs to come up with something new... something that he would sing if he only had enough time to live to sing just one song... for them to take an interest. Cash accepts the challenge. He comes home to Vivian to tell her that they made a record.

For a long time after that, Walk The Line becomes not just a movie about Cash, but about all the talent that came from the legendary Sun studios in the mid-1950s. We watch as Cash tours with Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne, playing "The Killer" much more outrageously than Dennis Quaid did in my opinion), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), and Elvis Presley, played with a considerable amount of conviction by Tyler Hilton. Also along for the tour is June Carter (Witherspoon).

You needn't be told by me about what happens after that: Johnny and June become increasingly smitten with each other, despite the fact that both are married (and then remarried, in Carter's case). Johnny's introduction to - and then dependency on - amphetamines and other drugs. The toll that the constant touring and longing for June have on both Johnny's career and life with his family... especially on Vivian, from whom Johnny becomes increasingly estranged. The inevitable crash of both personal life and public career. Cash's struggle to regain some semblance of both. His idea of recording a live album in front of the inmates at Folsom. And finally the long-percolating union of Johnny and June in marriage. The final scene seemed a little abrupt for me, at first. Then I realized that this is what Cash had been wanting all along: togetherness with a family. It ends at just the right point, and tells us that Johnny and June had a long and beautiful life together before both died within months of each other in 2003.

There are a few other movies that I'm hoping to catch this next month - King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Syriana, maybe one or two more - but weighed against everything else that I've seen during the past eleven months, Walk The Line is by far the best movie I've seen all year. This is easily the best work that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have ever done. Phoenix, it took me awhile to really accept that he is playing Johnny Cash here, and that has to do with a few things that are easily outside the producers' control. But let's face it: it's going to be impossible to find someone who looks and sings exactly like Cash. If you can suspend your disbelief only a degree or two, Phoenix really does become Johnny Cash... or at least as close as anyone is apt to get. Witherspoon is an absolute delight as June Carter. I don't give that much merit to the Oscars, but it really would be a travesty if she isn't nominated for Best Actress for this. In a rational world Robert Patrick will get nominated for Best Supporting Actor (competing against Ian McDiarmid from Star Wars Episode III) for his role as Ray Cash. Just about darned nearly everything is perfect in this film: the acting, the music, the costuming and scenery, the pacing... it all really felt like they were pages taken from Cash's life. Like his proclivity toward performing for incarcerated felons: that wasn't just a "stunt" he did a few times. After the movie Dad told us about he and Mom going to watch Johnny Cash perform at the Greensboro Coliseum about thirty years ago. The entire place was packed except for this one entire section of seats toward the front. Dad said they remained totally empty until five minutes before the show started: dozens of inmates were escorted in under armed guard and shown to the seats, from which they got to enjoy Johnny Cash live in concert. Dad said they remained there until just about everybody else had left, and then they were taken en masse to the buses that drove them back to the local prison. I have to wonder how many concerts in his career did Cash do that for those in prison. It really must have been thought of by him as being an act of Christian charity.

And speaking of which, there are a few things that I wasn't completely satisfied about with Walk The Line, though. If there is a fault with Walk The Line, it must be that it gives very sparse attention to Cash's deep spiritual life. There were four things that defined Johnny Cash: June, his family, his flirtations with excess, and his faith in God. We watch the first three as they lay down their part in the solid foundation of Cash's life, but surprisingly little is shared about his departure from, and then his later intense return to, his profoundly strong belief in Christ. Given their deep friendship and since everybody else - from the Sun execs to Waylon Jennings - is depicted, I was seriously expecting the Rev. Billy Graham to be portrayed in this movie somewhere. That doesn't happen. And Johnny Cash's more spiritual moments are reduced to minor lines about gospel music and one fleeting scene of he and June entering a Baptist church together during his drug rehab. I wanted there to be more about his spiritual life. You see, in a lot of ways I see Johnny Cash as being the perfect example to me of what it means to be a real Christian. I mean, he was a believer, and so am I. But he went his own way in this world, and not necessarily the way that "proper" Christianity most often preaches. He struggled with his faith. Sometimes during those struggles he skirted too close to the darkness. There were moments that he could seem petty, even cruel. That wasn't the real Johnny Cash though. It never was. But to be the person that God made him to be, he couldn't shy away from confronting his faults and weaknesses. To Johnny Cash it wasn't being weak that was the weakness, it was being unwilling to admit to being weak. He not only admitted those foibles, he embraced them with relish. Through his music he gained power over those flaws. It made him not just a Christian, but what I call an "outlaw Christian". And really, is there supposed to be any other way in which to live this life that some of us profess to live? I know there's only so much time in a two-hour plus film to cover a life of more than seventy years, but still... this was the principle cornerstone of Johnny Cash, and it deserved more than a few brief moments of story.

But if you can choose to accept that his faith did have the greater bearing on his life, as proven by how he found redemption from his sins and went on to have one of the most profound influences on American music that there has ever been, you will still find Walk The Line to be a masterpiece of the biographical genre. Some might compare it to last year's Ray, and I think there are some similiarities (the scene where Cash is busted for drug possession is a lot like what happens to Ray Charles in Ray), but there's really no comparing the two. They are two films about two men, each one as set apart from others as there is likely to ever be found. Don't go in expecting Ray. Expect something altogether different, but as brilliantly executed all the same.

Walk The Line is a true love story on so many levels, but especially between Johnny and June. Everything that my heart felt from watching the "Hurt" video, I felt was done justice by this movie. I really can't blame either Johnny or June for the errors in each of their lives that they had in the past. This is a movie about Johnny and June, and how they both came to move forward, toward forgiveness for each and then a life with each other.

If for no other reason, go see Walk The Line because it's an enormously entertaining movie. It has tenderness. It has tragedy. It has triumph. And it has some pretty darn funny scenes interspersed throughout: no other film ever made, I can almost certainly guarantee, will give you the image of Mother Maybelle Carter (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) confronting a drug dealer with a shotgun.

Finally, I guess one of the biggest reasons why Walk The Line impacted me so is that I got to share it with two of the people who figure among the greatest in my life: my wife, and my father. I'm especially proud that I got to watch Walk The Line with Dad. The last time we'd been able to catch a movie together was The Perfect Storm over five years ago. Admittedly, our tastes in film differ somewhat: he's never been able to understand why I love the Star Wars movies so much. And that's perfectly understandable. But ever since I first started hearing about Walk The Line I had good vibes that this would be a great movie that I could take my Dad to see, and that we could both enjoy it on the level of equals. I believed that my wife - whose profession is based in music - would enjoy this movie.

To director James Mangold, Phoenix and Witherspoon, and the Cash family for allowing this story to be told in this way, along with everyone else involved in making this movie: thank you. You delivered what I've already come to think of as being one of the most memorable experiences that I've ever had from going to see a movie. I felt that I'd come out feeling really proud about being able to share this with my wife and father, and you didn't let me down the least bit. Really appreciate it, folks. Hope with Walk The Line that you'll earn more Oscars than you've shelf-space to hold 'em on.


Unknown said...


Simply the best review of Walk The Line that I have read. Thank you for giving the movie the accolades that it richly deserves.

Jana said...

What an awesome review! I've been dying to go see this as it was...now I've GOT to go see it! :-)

Chad said...

Excellent review, Chris. I enjoy Cash's music but didn't know a much about his life. You expressed what I felt after seeing it too. I was also disappointed that the movie didn't delve into Cash's spiritual life more. I definitely want to see this again.