Walk the Line (Widescreen Edition)
It is not a prerequisite of filmmaking that the star of a musical biopic bear a physical or vocal resemblance to the celebrity being portrayed. Indeed, the best performances of this genre came from stars who pretty much played themselves and not the famous warblers they were assigned to portray. James Cagney played James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, even if the film was allegedly about George M. Cohan. Susan Hayward had nothing in common with Lillian Roth, but her surprisingly strong musical star-turn in I’ll Cry Tomorrow revealed a depth to her acting that was previously untouched. And, of course, the ultimate divas Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross made their film debuts in Funny Girl and Lady Sings the Blues without sacrificing any of the respective personas.
But that can only work when you have a powerhouse star who can fuel a movie based solely on his or her charisma, talent and soul. For every Streisand and Ross, there is an equal number of performers who are either miscast (Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in Star!) or who lack the chops to pull it off (Ann Blyth in The Helen Morgan Story).
Joaquin Phoenix falls into that latter category with his Johnny Cash imitation in Walk the Line. Forget the physical similarities – Phoenix’s brooding male-model plastic looks is nowhere near the rugged, towering presence that Cash exuded. And while Phoenix gamely opted to do his own singing (one-upping Jamie Foxx’s reliance on Ray Charles’ recordings for Ray), his singing voice is a weak shadow of Cash’s always-astonishing vocal rumble. Indeed, when Phoenix approaches a microphone to announce “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash!”, the only possible reaction one could have is to yell out “No, you’re not!”
But then again, Walk the Line is never pre-occupied with accuracy of any degree. Spanning Cash’s life from his rural childhood through his career peak at the 1969 Folsom Prison concert, the film is strictly a paint-by-numbers biopic which feels too much like a multitude of musical biopics that came before it.
Here’s a quickie checklist of all the clichés that “Walk the Line” hits:
1. The troubled childhood? Check! The film recalls the poverty of Cash’s upbringing in a poor rural town and the trauma caused when his icy father blames him for the death of a brother in a sawmill accident.
2. The “hey-I-found-my-song” moment? Check! Phoenix’s Cash is seen off-duty during his Air Force stint plucking a guitar and slowly mouthing out the lyrics of Walk the Line (never mind that Cash was later sued for plagiarizing that tune – that convenient fact is absent here).
3. The “a-star-is-immediately-recognized” moment? Check! Cash and a pair of goofball pals abruptly turn a painfully awkward audition for a small record company into a starburst with their unexpectedly confident rendition of Walk the Line.
4. The inevitable strife that stardom brings? Check! Cash’s first marriage crumbles when he prefers to tour and his wife wants him to be home to raise their new family.
5. The sex-drugs-alcohol trinity? Check! Stardom goes to Cash’s head while booze and pills go into his bloodstream. He winds up collapsing on stage and getting busted for his bad boy behavior.
6. Redemption via the love and patience of an angel? Check! None other than perky June Carter, who is portrayed here as a combination guardian angel and singing sidekick. This is actually a huge insult to her memory – she was a gifted performer in her own right, rich with her own emotional complexities. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Carter, looks nice on camera and does an adequate job imitating her singing voice, but she never comes close to capturing Carter’s dynamic personality or rock-solid strength.
Speaking of rock-solid strength, Walk the Line significantly downplays the support which Cash and Carter received from the latter’s family, particularly singing matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter. Carter’s sister, with whom she performed, are not mentioned. And Cash’s deep religious faith, which was a hallmark of his entire career, is thoroughly ignored.
Having seen Cash in concert and having a personal encounter with him on a New York street, I can attest to the legendary performer’s charm and warmth. That’s nowhere evident in Walk the Line, a truly sorry excuse for a musical biopic.
Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1),
English (DTS 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 2.1 Surround), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.1 Surround)
Commentary by co-writer and director James Mangold
10 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by James Mangold
Trailers: Love Me Tender Special Edition