“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.
The plot follows classic country music artist Johnny Cash as he begins his music career and eventually falls in love with fellow artist June Carter. We catch a glimpse of Cash’s childhood and time in the Air Force, but everything really starts moving when he lands his first record deal and his career starts taking off. Cash struggles to keep two lives afloat: one as a father and husband, and one as an entertainer traveling with big names like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He struggles to balance both, and eventually risks losing both as the stress takes its toll on him. June Carter, initially someone he really looks up to, eventually becomes a partner and, at times, the only thing keeping him from destroying himself.
We’re all going to hell for the songs we sing!
It’s difficult to pick one aspect of the movie to highlight here. As I said, everything just worked so well, from the writing to the pacing to the music. If I had to single something out, though, it would be the performances from both Phoenix and Witherspoon. They really made these musical legends into very relatable characters without ever leaning on sentimentality or nostalgia. They learned to sing and play their respective instruments (guitar and autoharp) and performed all songs live as the cameras rolled—no lip-syncing here! They also put in the research to get history’s little details just right, including Cash botching the last note of the original recording of “Folsom Prison Blues.” I haven’t seen the entirety of acting performances from either of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this movie was the best performance for each.
Walk the Line runs the gamut of human emotion, and it makes it all feel completely natural. There are some truly heartbreaking moments as well as some amazing triumphs. There are times you’re angry for what happens to the characters and others you’re disgusted by what the characters are doing. Though I wouldn’t describe this as a comedy, there are plenty of funny moments along the way. The characters are complex and real, sometimes admirable and sometimes less than noble. But whether I approved or not, I grew to really care about Johnny and June. I truly wanted them to be happy and succeed. With their story, there are a lot of places it could have ended, but the ending they went with does not disappoint.
Walk the Line is a great underdog story of artistic achievement, romance, and redemption that’s not afraid to let its characters be human and stumble once in awhile. It’s also a great biopic about one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. I was already a Johnny Cash fan, but this film made me appreciate him and his music even more. It’s an outstanding drama, and a must-see for any music fans.
Director: James Mangold
Genres: drama, music, romance