In the music industry there are stars, there are superstars, and there
are legends. Johnny Cash is a legend, almost without peer. Rock And Roll
Hall Of Fame, Songwriters Hall Of Fame, Country Music Hall Of Fame. The
rock and roll genre has had Elvis as one of their Gods for decades, and
it is safe to say that Cash is close to the country music equivalent of
that. This is a man who transcended the confines of any genre the music
business would place him in, overcoming dirt poor, hard scrabbled
beginnings to become a singer-songwriter with unquestionable admiration
among fans and peers in all walks of life, revered by hillbilly and hippie
alike. That he never completely got past the tragic death of his older
brother is evident in many areas- his music, his drug use, his sometimes
self-abusive lifestyle, and his own admissions. Likewise, that he survived past his tortured early days of stardom probably owes everything to the strong, unwavering
love given him by his wife, June Carter as well as her family.
The movie begins with 12 year-old Cash (played from teen years on by Joaquin Phoenix) in the fields of Arkansas, living the life of a sharecropper picking endless rows of cotton alongside brother Jack and his father (Robert Patrick) and mother. Theirs was a life consisting of hardened no-nonsense work with one of John's few respites coming through their old radio and the sounds of gospel and country music, listening with ear at speaker to, among others, the Carter Family.
We soon are witness to brother Jacks' tragic death in a sawmill accident at the age of 14 and the awful effect it has on the Cash family, particularly the despondence of John and the empty rage it brings to his father. The film moves quickly in the first 15 minutes from childhood to his years in the Air Force in Germany, buying a guitar, learning the craft of playing and songwriting while spending long quiet days on duty as a telegraph operator, to his fast courtship and marriage to John's first wife Vivian, and days struggling to feed his family as a door to door salesman. All the while he holds on to his aspirations of becoming a singer, and wanders into the Sun Records office to implore Sam Phillips to give him an audition, which goes badly until Phillips tells Cash in reference to his music, "Its not about saving someone else, its about saving yourself"- which prompts John to pull an inspired take of "Folsom Prison Blues" from within him and persuade Phillips there's a sound here worth selling after all. >From there comes the road and the live performances, singing with co-billing names that are the stuff dreams are made of- Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and his childhood idol June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). It doesn't take long for Cash to get past his starry-eyed admiration for June to begin making impulsive advances towards her, those advances become ever more frequent and obsessive, with June holding the married Cash at bay in spite of her obvious attraction to him as well.
That Johnny Cash got to the top through strength of will and personal grit is evident and on display throughout the first half of this movie. The latter half gives the viewer a portrait of his life on the road, struggling to keep everyone happy- a wife who takes for granted their life of ease and wealth, record companies wanting more output for public consumption, and audiences demanding more and more of their idol. Pills and booze seemingly lace each of John's days along the way, those days turning into years, all the while feeling a frenzied emptiness Cash is unable to fill without June Carter at his side to fill it. One is tempted to look upon his downward spiral as purely the result of unrequited love but obviously more tortures this soul- the constant grief of losing his brother, a father who's opinion of his surviving son was that "the wrong son died", and a wife who seemingly looks upon him as a commodity also fuel this ring of fire.
After years apart a stroke of luck find
both Cash and Carter at the same public function, and he implores June to tour with him once again, which she agrees to do. What we witness from there is bittersweet, the duo on stage obviously inspired and almost unabashedly enamored with one another. John never seems as whole or at peace as he does with June in his presence, truly seeing her as the multi-faceted treasure that she is and dependent on that presence for his very well-being. June Carter is obviously Johnny Cash's muse, spiritually, romantically, musically. Their union ever deepening yet seemingly ever more unattainable, Cash spins out of control once again, in more and more trouble with his addiction- pills- and obsession- Carter, who retreats to solitude at home and begins to write "Ring Of Fire", a song about her tempestuous relationship with Cash. Ultimately the two scratch and tear away at the walls between them, but not without mountains of both drug-induced and emotional suffering to overcome along the way.
I suppose it is inevitable that this movie would be compared to last
year's biopic "Ray", in itself a fine movie with an Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray
Charles by Jamie Foxx. In my opinion that is unfortunate, because the
telling of Johnny Cash and his life needn't take a lesser spot in the film
goer's mind, for this film is no knock-off in any regard. Cash's story is
filled with a hellish pathos all its own, and his ultimate success is just as grand.
Much has been written about the portrayal of Cash by Phoenix, and his dead-on take of John in his younger years is incredible, certainly deserving of the Oscar nomination it has gleaned. Walk The Line is anything but a one man show, however- Reese Witherspoon gives a tough-as-nails, compassionate portrayal of June to play against the driven performance Phoenix puts in. Indeed, both bring their respective characters to life here, no small feat considering the legendary status both Cash and Carter hold in country/gospel music.
All the while in this movie there is, of course, the music- sang by Phoenix and Witherspoon themselves, giving the audience all the more reason to watch with respect. The renditions of songs such as "Get Rhythm", "I Walk The Line" "Jackson", "Wildwood Flower", and "It Ain't Me Babe" here are top notch.
Having read his autobiography I would have enjoyed seeing the story
taken further into his years of lesser fame, days with the ABC network
while doing his TV show, friendships with any number of diverse fellow
luminaries such as Bob Dylan and Billy Graham, the 70's production of
his religious film "Glory Road", his 80's years with the Highwaymen, and
his years regaining critical and popular fame in the 90's with producer
Rick Rubin and his American Recordings albums, but such would have made
for a movie either too long for what the studio wanted or a story not
nearly given the due it deserves, so I understand the reasoning with
ending the biopic in 1968. Also, given the fact that this is above all the telling of the love story of Cash and Carter an ending at a later period of his life might be seen as somewhat anti-climactic.
The film is presented here with an anamorphic Widescreen 2.39:1 transfer. I found the film to look very, very good. Colors seem accurate and well represented and overall sharpness is solid.
The audio choices for this film are stellar- the disc is presented with choices of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, as well as both Spanish and French Dolby Surround. Before receiving this disc for review I was hoping that Fox would have the foresight to include a DTS track here, being that this is very much a release that begs for one. Happily this is the case, and the DTS track here is outstanding. The music showcased sounds rich, deep and vibrant and should be a foot-tapping experience for those who can fully utilize this fine audio track. The DD 5.1 option is also clean and deep, but seems a bit more up front; both offerings here should satisfy those who wanted the movie brought home with an audio track that would do the music justice.
Audio Commentary by Co-Writer and Director James Mangold- A seating with Mangold giving his reminiscences as well as thoughts and insights into the making of the film itself as well as how it was written. Informative and interesting, but I found it to be a bit dry and ponderous. I would personally have rather seen Phoenix and Witherspoon sitting in here as well.
10 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by James Mangold- Several scenes cut presumably for purposes of keeping the movie at a smoother flow. Nothing here of much consequence. These include seconds-long snippets of brother James funeral, Cash selling door to door, arguing with first wife Vivian, rehearsing "Cry, Cry, Cry", making his first record.
Enhanced Music Sequences Featuring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon-
There are three here, all with 5.1 surround audio- "Rock And Roll Baby", "Jackson", and "Cocaine Blues" are shown as live videos with Phoenix as Cash. This entire threesome totals about 5 minutes.
Folsom, Cash, and the Comeback Featurette-
A 12 minute segment with artists including Marty Stuart, Kris Kristofferson and The Statler Brothers as well as various music writers from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine discussing the times and background behind Cash doing the Folsom Prison recordings. Informative and worth a look.
Celebrating The Man In Black: The Making Of Walk The Line-
Some high praise from Cash fans such as Kristofferson, Stuart, Kid Rock and Willie Nelson, they give their own takes on how influential Cash was in their own careers as well as their own takes on subjects such as the Walk The Line film and Cash's beginnings with Sun Records. This piece clocks in at about 10 minutes.
Ring Of Fire: The Passion Of Johnny & June Featurette- Some takes from many sources on the Cash-Carter union and it's many facets, as well as insights into their unique individual talents and charisma. A nice little piece about 12 minutes in length.
Also included are 5 Walk The Line Postcards, a chapter insert, and cardboard trifold packaging.
The movie is not without its flaws here and there- the pace seems a bit on the fast side at the beginning thus some areas of The Man In Black's early life seem woefully understated- it does however give us a horrible yet inspired view of the early years of fame, and Phoenix and Witherspoon bring their Cash and Carter to passionate life with a love story that seems more a test of strength than meant to be. That Cash and Carter had a long successful marriage as a result is not surprising- as told in this film, it was forged from molten steel at it's very inception. I've reviewed both the one and two disc set and while I think the one disc version is a better value, the short disc two documentaries are fun to watch and the packaging is far more attractive. Highly recommended.