Monday, May 15, 2006

Walk The Line

Johnny Cash. The man in black. The legend. I can hear a hundred songs from my rural childhood. I can hear those great last sessions with Rick Rubin - the ones that won over a whole new generation of listeners. The songs tell stories of real people and real challenges. All the while, I listened and wondered just who this man, this deep-voiced singer, was.

Walk The Line begins, much like as it ends, at Folsom Prison in 1968. Of course, Johnny broke huge in 1955 with "Folsom Prison Blues" - but at that time he had no idea of what prison life must be like. Before he takes the stage, as he takes a moment to reflect, the film hastens to call back the past and run through the upbringing of one J.R. Cash. From his humble life on the farm working (or not) in the fields alongside his older brother, hymn-reciting mother, and hardened father, Johnny grew accustomed to a life of hardship. At night, he escaped through the radio and the sounds of the Carter Family. It was here that he began to carry the torch for June Carter.

Over the course of the next two decades, Johnny married, bore two children, and set about making an honest living as a musician in Memphis, starting at Sun Studios with a his ragged band of mechanics, the Tennessee Two, and eventually moving to the touring circuit with the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and company. In time he grew successful, changed to Columbia records and drew an enormous fan base, but with that success came greater challenges. Through it all, as Johnny battled addiction and depression, there was but one constant: his love and determination to marry June Carter.

This film is the story of how Cash struggled to overcome his demons and win the heart of the woman of his dreams. Joaquin Phoenix play Cash convincingly - if naive. But the real showstopper is Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon. I'll confess that I generally cannot tolerate her characters, but this film would be lost without her shining light. The cinematography is stunning. Many of the shots set up context to the lyrics Johnny wrote and made famous (those who already know the music will be rewarded by this clever device). And the music, all sung by the cast, is rightfully reverent (if still pale in comparison). By the time the film draws to a close, I'm left wanting more, wanting to experience the longest chapter in Johnny's life, his salvation and devotion to June over the course of the ensuing three decades. Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars


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