Walk The Line (DVD)

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Walk The Line (DVD)

Primarily the story of the love that grew between country stars Johnny Cash and June Carter during the early years of Cash's career, WALK THE LINE is ...

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Review of "Walk The Line (DVD)"

published 10/09/2006 | afy9mab
Member since : 11/07/2000
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All of my DVD reviews are film only, so do not include pricing information. If you have time, please read and rate my Batman V Superman review.
Pro Great performances, good direction and a strong script
Cons Subtitled epilogue
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"Walk this Way"

Johnny Cash, the iconic Man in Black of Country music found a wellspring of inspiration in a life characterised by a self-destructive streak that saw him addicted to booze and prescription drugs. His life was further complicated by an upbringing marred by a controlling and abusive father and lifelong guilt over the childhood death of his older brother. He found redemption in his pursuit and romance with fellow singer June Carter, but their relationship wasn't always easy.

"Identity" director James Mangold gives a balanced view of Johnny Cash's life in this sensitive but never fawning bio-pic. He shies away from sentimentality in his depiction of the singer but isn't so far removed from his subject that the story is dry or sterile. He focuses on the defining moments of Cash's life and career, using them like building blocks to illustrate where he came from, who the man was and how certain people influenced him. So you get a good sense of him, without being mired in incidental detail. And following his romance with June Carter draws many of the incidents together and makes it feel less episodic. Indeed there is a certain drive to the pacing that makes you want to know more as the movie progresses. The recreations of the dustbowl America of the Depression and life on the road during the 50s and 60s are so vivid you can practically taste the dust and smell the sweat and cigarette smoke. You also understand why the grind of the tour would wear you down and make casual drug-taking and jailbait seem enticing ways to kill the time. The song-writing process is touched upon, suggesting that it is a combination of sudden inspiration and sheer hard work. In fact the film is all about the music and how the traumas of Cash's life feed into it.

Mangold's visual style is crisp and clear, drawing you to Cash through many close-ups and framing him in space in long-shots. This works particularly well in conjunction with Joaquin Phoenix's intense performance, which is magnetic. The movie is almost colour-coded with Johnny's father dragging a sort of gloom with him whenever he appears, creating a kind of claustrophobia. Germany is blue-tinged, as if cold and forbidding and not really where Cash belongs. The world only achieves real depth of colour when he is performing his songs. The casting is ideal, so you feel for the characters as much as the director clearly does. However, my personal bio-pic bugbear rears its' head once more as the final years of Cash's life are summarised by an on-screen epilogue. I just want something that feels less like a tombstone epitaph or obituary column to sum up a man's life.

Using Cash's own autobiographies as source material, Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis compact forty years into a manageable two and a quarter hours. Beginning with Cash backstage at Folsom Prison, one of the places that inspired his dark lyrics when he was in the air-force, it flashes back to his childhood in a dirt-poor farming family in the wilds of Tennessee, showing how his drunken, abusive father and the death of his elder brother informed his outlook. This is essentially the story of a man driven by guilt and the desire to impress his impassive father. This would certainly explain his need for acceptance and his romantic risk-taking that has him marrying in haste and repenting at leisure with first wife Vivian.

His desire for the unattainable also rears its head in his pursuit of June Carter that goes on for over twenty years. But his risk-taking behaviour also shows itself in the less acceptable form of excessive drinking and drug-taking that threatens to destroy him. He and June are presented almost like two halves of the same whole, with her strengths balancing out his weaknesses. It is telling that she is the only one that can pull him out of his self-inflicted purgatory. It's as if he has to hit rock bottom before he can rebuild his life. The dialogue throughout feels truthful if not entirely realistic, just because there are a number of short scenes that have to advance the narrative, so miss out all the minutiae of general conversation in favour of pushing the story forward. But this gives the movie impetus and keeps you engaged.

Joaquin's Phoenix's gives a dark, brooding performances as Cash, characterised by introspection and melancholy. He's moody and complex and there's always a sense of something troubling under the surface. He's an actor capable of using his own personal pain on the screen so you believe everything he experiences in the role. He immerses himself so deeply in the character that he had to seek help for alcohol addiction after filming. Though he may not have the vocal depth of the Man In Black, Phoenix manages to harness the sense of what he's singing about. So you get the impression he really feels the lyrics.

After a career of playing fluffy leads in often forgettable romantic comedies, it's nice to see Reece Witherspoon returning to darker, more involved characters that have typified some of her quirkier offerings ("Election", "American Psycho"). She's a revelation as June Carter, embodying the dichotomy of the role. On the one hand she's a sweet showbiz kid brought up as part of a performing family; on the other she's an independent woman with issues of her own as she struggles with juggling failed marriages and raising her kids whilst living on the road. There's a strong sense of moral fortitude to the character, that gives June a certain seriousness and propriety that prevents her from getting together with Johnny. That being said, she is also a firebrand with a hot temper, who gives as good as she gets in a male-dominated industry.

Robert Patrick is splendid as always as Johnny's critical father. He is reserved in a way that makes the character feel that much more disapproving because he isn't willing to engage with his son on any level. He's like one of those fathers you see at sporting events, dressing down their child when they lose and never congratulating them when they win.

The soundtrack to the movie is much more impressive than other musical bio-pics for the simple reason that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon performed all their own numbers. They attended music boot camp to teach them how to use their voices and though they aren't exact facsimiles of the people they are representing they have just enough talent and commitment to pull it off. The musical backing is full-blooded and gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to see Cash and his band perform, as the pulsating rhythms reverberate through your chest. The score by T-Bone Burnett is largely guitar-based and incorporates all the styles that informed Cash's unique brand of country music. So we hear plenty of twanging blues guitar, laid-back banjo, honky-tonk, rockabilly and gospel. In conjunction with Cash's own music from "Folsom Prison Blues" to "Ring of Fire", it makes for a toe-tapping soundtrack that is more diverse than you might expect, with numbers from Jerry Lee Lewis, Ryo Orbison and Bob Dylan.

Costume designer Arianne Phillips deserves praise for her impeccable recreations of fashions from the 1950s and 1960s. She marries form and function, giving simple fabrics a sort of glamour by their sharp cuts. So women look stylish and men look smart.

"Walk the Line" is a good biographical movie that doesn't get bogged down in sentiment or unnecessary detail. It focuses on Cash's abiding passion for the woman that would one day become his wife and the way she tries to save him from himself. It is an absorbing two and a quarter hours that will appeal to more than a country-and-western fan-base on the strength of the performances and the smooth direction. Even if you have no interest in Cash as a singer or songwriter, there's plenty of human interest to keep you involved.

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Comments on this review

  • Moogiekupo published 11/09/2006
    A great review. Not my kind of thing but will watch it as I heard so much good things about it - Kupo x
  • tigswade published 11/09/2006
    This is a really excellent, well written review.
  • darkangelwing published 10/09/2006
    He looks nothing like Cash, but a good review.
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Product Information : Walk The Line (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

Primarily the story of the love that grew between country stars Johnny Cash and June Carter during the early years of Cash's career, WALK THE LINE is the result of intense collaboration between director James Mangold, co-writer Gill Dennis, Johnny Cash, and June Carter Cash. Though both Cashes died in 2003, they oversaw the script's development for seven years. Mangold and Cash's insistence that the film's stars would actually sing paid off. Witherspoon's singing (as June) is lovely, and Phoenix's contains the raw energy and soul that defined Cash's sound. Even as a child on a cotton farm in Depression-era Arkansas, Cash shows a strong interest in music, escaping from his no-frills life and strict father (Robert Patrick) through hymns and listening to the radio. When his brother dies in a freak accident, young Johnny feels responsible, and worries that he will never live up to his brother's goodness. The film follows Cash through his first marriage with Vivian Cash (Ginnifer Goodwin) and into the early stages of his touring career alongside such musicians as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and most importantly, June Carter. As Cash's success grows, so does his relationship with drugs, alcohol, and Carter, putting a strain upon his family life. From his initial audition with Sam Phillips of Sun Records on through his legendary 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, Cash is transformed from a hesitant singer riddled with demons to a man whose uniquely bold style would make music history. WALK THE LINE never attempts to paint a full picture of Cash's prolific career, but instead focuses on the passions that drove his music and on the woman who gave him strength. With magical performances by Witherspoon and Phoenix, a haunting and inspiring American romance is brought beautifully to life.


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