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Johnny Cash was too complex for this over-simplified biopic

When Johnny Cash became bored, he’d occasionally grab his gun and start shooting at crows near his Tennessee home. In one famous instance, captured by documentary cameras in 1969, Cash wounded a crow, then spent the next several days obsessively caring for it. There’s an unfathomable contradiction behind the simultaneous drive to inflict damage and then repair the damage you’ve done. Cash was such a symbol of strength, a mountainous presence who radiated certitude and integrity, it’s easy to forget what a tormented, confused man he could be. It’s that torment and confusion that the Cash biopic Walk The Line explores.

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Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Man in Black
in Walk the Line.

We see a Cash haunted by the childhood death of a brother he idolized, scarred by the harsh reproaches of his distant father, misunderstood by his traditionalist first wife, and brought to his knees by a ravaging addiction to amphetamines. Along the way, Walk The Line makes the usual biopic sins of omission, compression, and outright inaccuracy.

Cash’s brother Jack, who died a week after being injured by a circular saw, is shown dying on the day of the accident. Elvis Presley is said to be popping pills on a 1955 tour with Cash, when all accounts state that Presley wasn’t introduced to pharmaceuticals until his Army stint in the late ’50s. And the 1968 scene in which Cash is condescendingly informed by Columbia record execs that Bob Dylan had gone electric while Cash was recuperating from drug addiction is laughable, since Dylan went electric a full three years earlier, and Cash was one of his most ardent defenders at the time.

On the big issues, however, Walk The Line gets it right. It recognizes that the central story of Cash’s life was his love for June Carter (pushing the sense that their union was fated, we even see Cash as a snot-nosed kid listening to Carter and her family on the radio), and that it was her commitment to him that saved his life and ultimately revived his career. Surprisingly, given the challenges of competing with Cash’s indelible bullhorn baritone, the music supervised by T-Bone Burnett is the most consistently effective part of the film. Joaquin Phoenix wisely chooses not to do a full-on Cash impression, and while his singing voice is merely adequate, it’s oddly appropriate given Cash’s own technical limitations.

Walk the Line

Dir. James Mangold; writ. Mangold, Gill Dennis, based on books by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr; feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin (PG-13)

The problem with the film is that while we always feel that we’re seeing Johnny Cash’s story, we never buy that we’re seeing Johnny Cash. Phoenix plays Cash as a sullen brooder, except when he’s a stoned brooder. In fairness, it’s simply an impossible task to convey the magnitude of the man, particularly considering the fact that Walk The Line is up against the endless reels of footage in our collective memories.

That partly explains why a biopic like The Buddy Holly Story, a technically inferior film that took far more liberties with truth, defined its subject in a way that Walk The Line can’t. In our minds, Gary Busey became Buddy Holly because we never knew Holly except through his records. To a lesser degree, this also explains why Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter, fits more comfortably into her role than Phoenix.

In real life, Cash’s contradictions made him endlessly intriguing. In Walk The Line, all of those contradictions are laid out for us to see. But they never add up to anything.

By Gilbert Garcia


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