Walk the Line’ – A Riveting Tribute

Alyssa Labelle

Although it was a long time in the making, the film Walk the Line has finally made it to theaters. It took four years to secure the rights to the story. After that, it took another four years for the film to be made. But at last it’s here, a film chronicle of the life of country music legend Johnny Cash.

In the beginning of the movie, Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), is reflecting on his life before a performance at a prison. The story is told in a series of flashbacks while he waits backstage. The flashback starts with him as a little boy in Arkansas, laying the framework for challenges that are to develop later in his life. It follows him into the military and his marriage to Vivian Cash (Ginnifer Goodwin). Following an unsuccessful stint as a door-to-door salesman, Cash, who has always been fascinated by music, makes his first attempt at a career as a musician. From here, the film follows his beginnings in Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, to his tours with other musical greats such as Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), and to his development as a star in his own right. Through all this, Cash meets and begins a tumultuous relationship with his childhood idol June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). This film follows the ups and downs of Cash’s life and career, including the disintegration of his home life, the ghosts of his past and his drug addiction. This flashback method eventually brings the audience back to Cash backstage at the prison, and the movie comes to its satisfying conclusion.

Although Walk the Line is billed as the story of Cash’s life, it focuses mostly on the relationship between him and Carter. This is set up in the beginning of the movie, when as a young boy Cash listens to Carter on the radio with his older brother. When he first meets her in real life on the Sun Records tour, they are both married to other people and have children. This makes their union seem impossible, but eventually Carter’s marriage disintegrates, as does Cash’s. Where Cash’s own family is unwilling to help him cope with his drug problem and other issues, Carter steps in to provide the friendship and often the reality check needed to help him on the road to recovery.

Cash himself chose Phoenix to play him in the film. Because Phoenix had vocal training for six months prior to the making of this film, he performed all the songs in the film. He does a laudable job of imitating Cash’s voice and style of singing. He also learned to play the guitar for this movie. His portrayal of the “man in black” brings out the challenges faced by Cash as well as the genius he brought to the field, and makes it impossible for him to be written off as just another drug-addicted musician.

Witherspoon, who also had vocal training, does an equally praise-worthy job as singer June Carter. Sporting a new brunette hairdo and a southern twang, she brings zest and sassiness to the character. She also performed all of her songs in the movie and learned to play the auto-harp that accompanies Carter in many of her songs throughout the movie. Rumor has it that Carter chose Witherspoon to portray her in the movie, and that because Carter died before production of the film began, Witherspoon’s character research included looking through Carter’s closet for inspiration.

Supporting roles, such as those of Cash’s wife Vivian and his father Ray, provide the nuances and background needed to bring out the complexity of the issues and challenges Cash faced.

One notable strong point in the film is, of course, the music. Whether you are a fan of Cash and country or not, this one is a treat for the ears. The leads not only managed to carry a tune, but they sounded like the musicians they were portraying. The movie is filled with Cash favorites, duets with Carter and cameo snippets of performances by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The music tours and Cash’s ascension to fame help express how revolutionary his music was and the effect it had on the evolution of the industry itself. And really, who would object to another rendition of “Ring of Fire?”

Although there are many comic moments, this is an emotionally charged film. Right from the beginning, the graphic depiction of the death of Cash’s brother and later scenes involving his drug addiction and family problems can be difficult to watch. But with the help of Carter, Cash’s life seems to come together in the end, and the audience can leave the theater with a sense of satisfaction.

This movie is not just for Cash fans or music aficionados. It clocks in at a little over two hours and is rated PG-13. The story of this music legend’s life is intriguing and engaging, and many critics say this film has “Academy Award” written all over it.