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Director 'strikes gold' in casting Phoenix as rock 'n' roll legend
By Mark Moorehead

November 19, 2005

Johnny Cash is one of only two musicians inducted into both the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Country halls of fame. The other was his buddy Elvis Presley. There’s little we don’t’ know about Elvis. However, mention Johnny Cash’s name and a lot of people draw a blank. At best they may recall a couple of his songs, like Ring of Fire or Folsom Prison Blues. But ask if they know anything about his life before June Carter and few will recall a single insightful fact, myself included.

Director James Mangold decided to right the collective Hollywood snub of this insecure man who never saw himself as a legend. Mangold based Walk the Line on two of Cash’s own books, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, and interviews with Johnny and June Carter Cash before they both died in 2003.

Johnny’s career spanned five decades and consequently it’s impossible to capture the essence of who he really was in just two hours. Therefore, Mangold carefully selected four poignant moments in Cash’s life, beginning with his impoverished Depression-era childhood in rural Arkansas and ending with his marriage to country legend June Carter in 1968.

The other two memorable scenes cover his instant rise to fame and eventual fall from grace due to alcohol and amphetamines.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash and pulls it off in convincing fashion. Phoenix not only looks like Cash when he was young but sounds just like him expertly imitating Johhny’s deep baritone voice without lip-syncing.

Phoenix actually sings all of Cash’s songs flawlessly while slinging his guitar around and pointing it at the audience, a trademark of the rock ‘n’ roll legend. The only odd thing is he never seems to age.

Director Mangold struck gold casting Phoenix for this role. Phoenix’s subdued personality is perfectly suited for the gloomy, lost-in-the-woods look Cash was noted for.

And, J.R., Johnny Cash’s nickname, had reason to feel gloomy. During his childhood his older brother died in a sawmill accident while attempting to earn money for the family and J.R.’s alcoholic father blamed J.R. for his favorite son’s death.

Poverty, guilt from his brother’s death and rejection from his father are a few of the demons that haunted Cash throughout his life.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t linger very long during Cash’s formative years and we never really get to know what makes him tick or where he found his inspiration to make music. One sign of a good film is it leaves you wanting more, which Walk the Line does.

After a stint in the Air Force, Cash marries his first wife (played by Vivian Liberto) and moves to Memphis in 1955. While there, he impresses Sam Phillips of Sun Records, the same record label that just signed up Elvis Presley.

Cash cuts a record with his hit Folsum Prison Blues and his career takes off like a rocket. He hits the road with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and his new best friend June Carter (played by Reese Witherspoon). Imagine what it must have been like for the bus driver!

This group of musical vagabonds created rock ‘n’ roll history traveling from Canada to Mexico, performing 300 shows in a year. Life on the road took its toll on Cash and he resorted to amphetamines to stay awake and maintain his energy level during performances.

From here, the movie morphs into the John-and-June show. The love story between the two and their relationship on the road dominates the second half of the film.

Witherspoon is quick as a whip and witty as the no-nonsense Carter. She sings every note of every song, including the song Ring of Fire which June Carter co-wrote claiming the lyrics described her awkward relationship with Cash before they married.

While Johnny and June shared the stage together, it took 10 years before they tied the knot. The fact that both were married to other spouses at the time was part of the reason. However, the main barrier was Cash’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. When he was arrested in 1965 for possession, he hit rock bottom and June eventually picked him up, weaned him off the stuff and was instrumental, so to speak, in his career comeback in 1968 with his famous, unforgettable concert at Folsom Prison.

Performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon deserve high praise and will probably be rewarded with Oscar nominations next year.

In fact Phoenix was so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played Vegas this Christmas and opened his act with the words “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash,” and its “burn, burn, burn…in a ring of fire, in a ring of fire.”



Mark's Movie Meter

General Audiences: A

Johnny Cash bio-pic. For sheer entertainment value, this film will please any adult regardless of your musical taste. No gratuitous sex or violence. Lots of good music.

Family Audiences: B-
Not ideally a family film due the thematic elements of drug and alcohol addiction. On a more practical level, kids and teens are not into 1950s rock-legend biographies, even if Reese Witherspoon is one of the players. Rated PG-13 for some language and depiction of drug dependency. 




























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