Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 3, 2006)
In 2004, Ray looked at the life and career of a music pioneer whose career peaked in the Fifties and Sixties. In 2005, Walk the Line looked at the life and career of a music pioneer whose career peaked in the Fifties and Sixties. Both received similar attention from critics and the Oscar nominations, though Ray managed a Best Picture nod that eluded Line. At least Line could boast better box office returns, as it made $116 million as opposed to Ray’s $75 million.
Comparisons between the two films seem valid because they’re so similar in so many ways. It’s not just their subject matter that makes them appear alike. Both flicks take on their topics in nearly identical manners and often feel like companion pieces.
Line examines the ups and downs of seminal country star Johnny Cash. After a brief look at his famous Folsom Prison concert in 1968, the movie immediately leaps back to Cash’s childhood in Arkansas. Set in 1944, we meet young “JR” (Ridge Canipe) and his family. They include best pal/older brother Jack (Lucas Till) and abusive father Ray (Robert Patrick). They live a poor existence as cotton pickers and Jack does some work on the side. When he has an accident at a power saw, he soon dies.
From there the movie leaps ahead to 1953 and an adult John’s (Joaquin Phoenix) induction into the Air Force. He goes to Germany where he writes some of his earliest songs. When he returns to the US, he marries his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and takes her to Memphis so he can become a musician. Unfortunately, he does poorly and they live in poverty until he gets his big break.
John and his band audition for Sun Records owner/producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). Initially Phillips rejects their warmed-over gospel, but when John trots out his own tunes, he wins himself a record contract and a spot on the Sun Records concert tour. There he finds himself onstage along with Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). John mooned over June as a child, and even though both are now married with their own kids, he clearly maintains a romantic interest in her.
That theme continues through the years. June divorces and remarries while Johnny experiences his own marital difficulties, largely due to his ongoing love for June. It doesn’t help that Cash becomes a pill-popper and drunk along the way; those factors take their toll on his career as well. Line follows Cash’s life and career until 1970 as we watch Johnny’s ups and downs.
As I alluded earlier, Line shares an awful lot of similarities with Ray. In fact, the two films are so much alike that I’m damned tempted to simply cut and paste my remarks about Ray for this review. I don’t know what I said about Ray that also doesn’t apply to Line.
Actually, that’s not totally true, as I think Line boasts a stronger focus. It concentrates on Johnny’s love for June. That’s a consistent theme throughout the flick, and it’s not a coincidence that the movie ends right after she finally accepts his marriage proposal. Johnny’s feelings toward her give the story more of an arc than Ray enjoyed.
And June offers a strong female character absent from Ray. The women come and go in the latter; they make a dent but don’t offer as compelling a part. Too bad that Line doesn’t give June a whole lot to do other than act as the object of Johnny’s affection. Really, she’s the Jiminy Cricket role, as she works to clean up Cash and redeem him. Witherspoon manages to open up the part as well as she can, but as written, she’s kind of a nag and doesn’t get much dimensionality.
To a certain degree, the film hamstrings Johnny in the same way. The script doesn’t give him a lot of depth and we don’t receive much exploration of his character. Take the segment in which he gets addicted to drugs. This just happens; one minute he’s clean, and the next he’s hepped up on goofballs. I suppose his fruitless passion for June explains some of this, but that’s speculation since the movie fails to investigate this.
I don’t see Phoenix’s performance as a terrific one, but again, I think he does the best he can. The script simply doesn’t allow him much leeway. It gives him a few specific characteristics but doesn’t open up matters to greater interpretation or depth. Phoenix works his way through the superficial nature of things well but he can’t overcome the limited depth of the story.
Some have criticized the decision to have Phoenix and Witherspoon sing for themselves. Neither can replicate their characters’ voices with true accuracy, so this could become a bit of a distraction; if the singing doesn’t match with our memories of Cash and Carter, we could lose touch with the film.
In my opinion, Witherspoon and Phoenix approximate June and Johnny well enough to succeed. It’s less of a problem for Witherspoon since fewer people boast great familiarity with June’s voice. Phoenix never really emulates Johnny, but he feels close enough for my liking.
Although Ray’s use of Ray Charles’ actual vocals meant this wasn’t an issue, I prefer the choice in Line because it makes the musical sequences more seamless. I recognize that Witherspoon and Phoenix lip-synch their own tunes here, but I find that technique to be more convincing when someone mimics their own vocals. This seems more natural to me than the karaoke treatment, so the musical pieces match better than I think they would if they used old Cash and Carter recordings.
At least Line comes across less as a “greatest hits” reel than Ray. That’s due to the emphasis on June. We see some of Cash’s big moments but the movie doesn’t simply toss them at us in a haphazard way. It manages to integrate them fairly well, even if few of them stand out as particularly memorable.
Ultimately, Walk the Line comes down as a perfectly respectable and reasonably entertaining bio-pic. At no point does it become less than interesting, but it never threatens to turn into anything truly magnetic or involving either. This is decent stuff and nothing more.