Back in Black

Some inspired detours sway Walk the Line from the straight and narrow

Given the gift many rock stars have for running their lives—and deaths—as if they were bad movies, it's all but impossible to make a rock biopic these days without sinking into galloping cliché: the troubled childhood; the early breaks; fame, drugs, booze; redemption or suicide. Gus Van Sant pulled it off with Last Days, a quiet and intensely particular chamber piece that honored Kurt Cobain with truth over myth. There may be good reason to make a more conventional life of country singer Johnny Cash, who in his crazy years traveled with the nascent stars—Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins—who set the blueprint for rock-star hard partying. Part love story, part concert movie, part wild and woolly account of the early days on the rock & roll tour circuit, James Mangold's Walk the Line is an engaging biopic that would totally lack surprise were it not for Reese Witherspoon, and a healthy touch of ambivalence about the populist myth that bound The Man in Black to his adoring public.

Walk the Line begins with the famous concert in Folsom Prison where Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), who never spent a day in jail for anything more felonious than drug possession, belted out the song that brought him sacks full of sympathetic mail from lovelorn girls and convicts alike. Mangold and screenwriter Gill Dennis have just enough distance from their subject to make this a running joke, but they might have made more of how the song became the organizing principle of Cash's mystique, and how a pop performer and his audience can come together in a lie that's true to their experience of being dispossessed. Certainly Cash's magnificently lugubrious everyman repertoire (I love his music, but I have to be in a certain kind of poor-me mood to listen to his lyrics without laughing) drew on his lifelong sense of being an outcast in his own family. Left to himself, Joaquin Phoenix, like his older, craggier colleague Sean Penn, is often prone to tragic grandiloquence, but in Walk the Line he gives a persuasive imitation of the strong, silent sex machine whose chronic shyness evaporated once he got onstage, where he practically ate the mike and aimed his guitar at the audience like an AK-47.

Phoenix is a dignified presence, but hardly an electric one, and for a while Walk the Line jogs diligently along in the usual explanatory shorthand: Cash's childhood, scarred by the accidental death of a beloved older brother who was the clear favorite of their sour sharecropper father (Robert Patrick); his ill-advised marriage to a sweetheart whose dreams couldn't differ more from his own; his clumsy early efforts as a gospel singer-songwriter and sudden success once he found a voice; and the slide into drugs, drink and depression when the constant touring wore out both him and his marriage. It's only when June Carter (Witherspoon) bounces onstage in a flowered dress with hoop skirt and pretty much takes over the movie, just as Carter later took over Cash's life, that Walk the Line wakes up.

For all her vacuous blue-eyed prettiness, Witherspoon has always been a fiercely intelligent presence, and now that she's growing up—her beauty has turned from apple-cheeked to angular—she brings not just vivacity but a depth and breadth to this young singer who, growing up in the shadow of an older sister with a better voice, carved a niche for herself by clowning onstage. You can already see in this vulnerable girl the mature Carter who would later save Cash from himself, but Walk the Line narrows its focus to the years when Cash tried to win over Carter the devoted mother, who, gun-shy after two disastrous marriages, holds him at bay while he's strung out on booze and pills and comes to understand that before she can become his lover, she'll have to become his friend. In the inevitable concert sequences, Witherspoon and Phoenix, who sing their own solos and duets with sweetness and brio, make a vital, sexy pair, the one so held-back and exhausted by his own weakness and rage, the other forthright and resilient.

Still, there's something pat, a whiff of official story about Johnny and June's progression from walking wounded to happy ever after. I have no idea whether Carter really drafted her entire family to help Cash withdraw from his pill-popping, whether her father saw Cash's dealer off the premises with a rifle, or whether Cash really proposed to Carter onstage, which seems uncharacteristic of this famously reticent man. Yet perhaps the right venue for someone who came alive only when performing. Like many fact-based movies seduced by copious input from the source (Mangold and Dennis spent many hours talking to the Cashes before their deaths in 2003), Walk the Line's most telling moments take place on the periphery: Cash learning how to carouse with his pals, who're played by various contemporary rock and blues artists (Waylon Malloy Payne is a feral standout as Jerry Lee Lewis), or profoundly ill at ease with his family (an all but unrecognizable Shelby Lynne is wonderfully dour as Cash's put-upon, deeply religious mother). But it's in Ginnifer Goodwin's compelling turn as Cash's first wife, Vivian—a decent, limited woman hanging on for dear life to a man who's as wrong for her as she is for him—that we see the human wreckage left in the wake of this very public love affair and this very grand myth.

WALK THE LINE WAS DIRECTED BY JAMES MANGOLD; WRITTEN BY GILL DENNIS AND MANGOLD, BASED ON THE BOOKS MAN IN BLACK AND CASH THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY JOHNNY CASH; PRODUCED BY CATHY KONRAD AND JAMES KEACH. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.

 
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