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John Lennon was murdered 25 years ago today. Thankfully, there hasn't yet been a major motion picture biopic of his life, although, needless to say, there has been a TV movie. As I said in my review of the Ray Charles biopic last year, I am leery of movies about people who have been alive during my lifetime. It's harder to accept an actor playing someone whose face is very familiar. But Jamie Foxx blew all that away in Ray by with his amazing performance as Ray Charles. Which brings me to Walk the Line, the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Like Ray Charles, both of them died very recently. There are lots of other similarities between the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. They both grew up poor in the south and were scarred by the accidental deaths of their brothers. They fought their way to the top in the music world and then almost lost it all due to drug addiction. But Walk the Line and Ray have some fundamental differences. Ray was all about Ray Charles, while Walk the Line is about two people, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). And the biggest difference of all is that while Jamie Foxx lip-synched to Ray Charles vocals, Phoenix and Witherspoon actually sing themselves. This was a gutsy move and I think it makes Walk the Line a much better movie than it would have been.
Walk the Line begins with the early life of Johnny Cash who grows up singing gospel songs. He is close to his older brother, who dies in an accident, and to his mother (Shelby Lynne), but is at odds with his father (Robert Patrick) for most of his life. Even though he doesn't meet June Carter until much later, Cash knows her because she was well known from the age of six as part of the Carter Family country music group. After a stint in the Air Force, Cash marries his childhood sweetheart (Ginnifer Goodwin) and tries to make a living as a door-to-door salesman. But he starts a little band and eventually gets a recording contract with Sun Records and starts touring with Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne). Unbelievable but true. And Cash meets June Carter who is also touring. They are both married to other people but they hit it off and become friends. The sexual tension lasts for about ten years until after they are both divorced and Cash has hit rock bottom, June finally relents and says yes.
While I was never completely taken in by Walk the Line the way I was with Ray, this new film has a nice energy that is provided by Phoenix and especially by Witherspoon. The fact that they are actually doing the singing, makes the many performances in Walk the Line, seem more real. And it's a great romantic story. Witherspoon steals the movie with her performance. I hope she gets an Oscar nomination because this is the role she has been waiting for all her life. She was good in Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama but in Walk the Line, she is great. Phoenix is good too. He has been slowly building a nice resume of films, notably Gladiator. He is, of course, one of five acting siblings along with River, Rain, Liberty and Summer. He used to go by the name Leaf. He will never surpass his late brother, River, but he's doing OK. The rest of the cast in Walk the Line don't make much of an impression but Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, X-Files) is very good but almost unrecognizable as Cash's cranky father. Waylon Jennings is played by his real-life son, Shooter, and Jerry Lee Lewis is played by Waylon's godson, Waylon Payne.
It's a tough call as to which Johnny Cash song should have been used for the title of this movie, I would have gone with Ring of Fire ("I Fell For You Like A Child, Oh, But The Fire Went Wild") since that was written by June Carter. But Walk the Line ("Because you're mine, I walk the line") is a good choice too. Cash eventually conquers his drug addiction because of his love for June. I've been giving out a lot of bottles lately but they usually save the good films until December so they are fresh in the minds of the Oscar voters. Here's another one.