Where do you begin to tell the story of such a singular and iconic figure as Johnny Cash, whose career spanned six decades and several genres? Director James Mangold chooses to open the tale poised just on the edge of Cash's defining moment -- his 1968 concert at California's Folsom Prison -- before flashing back to show us the path that led "The Man in Black" to this great moment in this horrible place.
To be sure, Walk the Line is standard show-biz fare -- the whole rags-to-Vegas ride -- but Mangold's gamble is to balance that familiar tale on the 13-year courtship of Cash and June Carter, and to suggest the real destination of Cash's journey was not fame and fortune, but personal redemption wrung from the love of a good woman. In this respect, the film is fairly compelling, though the kudos belong less to Mangold's pedantic approach than to his lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Walk the Line is firmly in the Ray camp, a celebratory bio-pic with a few warts tossed in for authenticity. (Before their deaths two years ago, Cash and Carter cooperated with Mangold on the project, so presumably all blemishes are pre-approved.) We get a brief primer on Cash's impoverished rural Arkansas childhood (like Ray, shot under the ennobling golden sun) and his stint in the Air Force, in Germany.
As Cash settles in Memphis in 1955, so does the film. In short order, Cash stumbles upon Sun Records, gets recorded and goes on tour with other burgeoning hillbilly rockers (Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis). On the circuit he meets June Carter -- daughter of Mother Maybelle, and country music royalty (ironically, such status requires June to pull an exaggerated cornpone act). Though both are inconveniently married to others, Cash loses his heart.
With stardom comes domestic strife, pills -- and repeated tours with Carter. This is the emotional meat of Mangold's story -- the unmistakable connection between the two that for the most part can be consummated only on stage. That Cash pines for June over a long decade may baffle today's hook-up kids, but it's the one dramatic tension that actually works in this film.
Otherwise Mangold steers the story into the familiar pitfalls of condensed biography. You'll clock time until such predictable scenes as the holiday family meltdown, the sweaty cold-turkey detox and the despondent lover's trudge through the pouring rain (somebody oughta write a country song about that!). Despite the emphasis on their relationship, Walk the Line doesn't give us many opportunities to piece together the inner lives of Cash and June, preferring to sum them up in Hallmark bromides. Cash: "I've hurt everyone I know"; June: "You're a good man ... this is your chance."
Curiously, Mangold fails to fully develop the battle between sin and salvation. Not only was this an essential conflict in Cash's life (he recorded gospel music his entire career even as he traded on his darker, rebellious image), but it is also the pivotal tension of country music, intrinsic to its very sound, an evolving hybrid of gospel, blues, traditional folk music and later, rock. Cash was hardly the first hard-livin' backslider to sing a morally rigid hymn with genuine conviction -- all that Saturday night carousin' followed by Sunday morning prayin'. And June, too, had her own worries: a fundamentalist Christian, twice divorced.
Witherspoon and Phoenix do their own singing, and acquit themselves well. Nobody can really sound like Johnny Cash, but Phoenix finds a decent baritone. Combined with a few signature stage moves, Phoenix's approximation of Cash works well enough. Phoenix's best asset is his natural broodiness; he's an actor who nearly always seems slumped with some unarticulated woe. Reading dark and troubled lends his portrayal some veracity and depth, and helps paper over the lightweight script. Even when he intones banalities, you sense he's concealing darker emotions.
The film is best in its musical moments, where Mangold's camera circles the performers, capturing the various enthusiastic audiences (teenyboppers, blue-hairs, felons). Phoenix and Witherspoon embrace these scenes, allowing us to easily intuit how music slakes their respective thirsts, their shared passion for communicating in song as well as their unrequited love. The air crackles in their duet on "Jackson." (Dare I say "hotter than a pepper sprout"? Funny how a good delivery makes banalities more palatable.)
During the film's key scene at the Folsom Prison gig, Mangold actually lays back. Instead, it's Phoenix who lets us in on the exhilaration Cash feels as he bridges both his light and dark sides, slamming through "Cocaine Blues" unapologetically, high on the pleasure of performing and satisfied to have at last found his place.
In the end, it's Phoenix and Witherspoon, and their musical numbers, that keep this film afloat on its sea of thin plots, clichés and overstatements of the obvious. And while Walk the Line is enjoyable throughout, more than once I wished the film had given the up-for-it actors something meatier to work with, as well as obliging us with better raw material. If we already know the major plot points of a public life, allow us instead to discover its intimacies and contradictions: The aspects of Cash's and Carter's lives that are universal -- messy romance, moral conflicts, trust -- needn't be literally articulated. Not when the lesson of Cash's success was his ability to convey powerful emotional messages with deceptively simple words -- "but those people keep a-movin'" -- delivered in a spare style that nonetheless made plain the genuine feeling beneath.