Walk The Line (2005)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, Waylon Payne

Directed by: James Mangold

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black - Johnny Cash

By now, you should all know the Rules of the Biopic. If you're bored with the three stages of Elvis analogy, we could try Goodfellas instead: starting with the slick-suited, cigarette heist, high rolling good times, progressing to the wall-to-wall stereo, bowl of cocaine by the bedside phase and ending with the paranoid, red-eyed, stirring the pasta sauce days.

Except that, in this case, the Elvis comparison would seem to be more apt - Johnny Cash and the King were direct contemporaries, after all. In fact, if Walk The Line is to be believed, it was Elvis who was responsible for Cash's pill popping - a habit which makes Henry Hill's cocaine rushes look positively tame.

First, though, we have the Traumatic Childhood Event that will Shape the Man. In Cash's case, this is the accidental death of his elder brother Jack. His stern alcoholic father Ray (played by Robert Patrick, finally managing to shake off his resemblance to the T1000) makes it perfectly clear that the wrong son has died, instilling in the young John a sense of guilt and inferiority that will dog him throughout the heady days of fame to come.

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in Walk The Line

The main focus of the film, however, lies in Cash's relationship with country songbird June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, pulling out all the sassy Southern stops to deliver a remarkable performance with real heart). Inconveniently, when the pair first meet (while on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and the world's most unconvincing Elvis impersonator ever), both are already married to other people, but this doesn't stop Cash falling head over heels in love with the charming Steel Magnolia.

Quite why Cash and first wife Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin) ever wed in the first place remains a bit of a mystery - it's not as if we ever see them having fun together. And while she may be long suffering, putting up with all manner of absence and infidelity from her rising star of a man, she also resolutely refuses to take any interest in his career, choosing instead to bury herself in a Vogue-tinted vision of 1950s domestic bliss, which, without a husband, fails to satisfy.

The real Johnny Cash and June Carther

June, on the other hand, knows exactly who Cash is and what he's all about - which is why, despite the obvious chemistry between the two, she continues to hold out on him. Sparky, courageous and fiercely independent in a world in which women were expected to remain tied to their shiny new kitchen appliances while their men brought home the bacon, June Carter is above all a Good Woman, and the best friend anyone (especially Johnny Cash) could ever hope to have. Doggedly dragging him through his whacked out, drug addled, angry, violent phase (in which he necks down pills like jellybeans, before passing out in all manner of awkward and potentially dangerous places) it's only once he's finally straight that she reluctantly aggress to marry him. Oops - SPOILER! Yes, Walk The Line is a biopic with a happy ending - a very happy ending, if you consider that Carter and Cash remained together for 35 years. When June died in May 2003, Johnny followed her just four months later - breaking the mould once more by living fast but dying old.

At the time of his death, Cash had come fully circle, and was as famous and feted as he was in the '50s. Thanks to a series of gothic cover versions, he'd won himself a legion of new, younger fans who wouldn't usually be seen dead (or even undead) listening to country and western music, and is now generally acknowledged to be one of the most enduring and influential figures in modern music.

Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) live at Folsom Prison

And Walk The Line provides a fitting tribute to the myth, the music and the magic of the Man in Black. Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix turns in a stellar, curly-lipped, gravel-voiced, crazy black-eyed performance as Cash. Oozing arrogant star quality and aching vulnerability in equal amounts, he conveys to perfection the uneasy tension between the charismatic rock'n'roll star in the public eye and the tortured private soul. I'm sure it's no coincidence that the main narrative of the film is framed by Cash's groundbreaking show at Folsom Prison: renowned for writing songs about doing time while suffering nothing more than a night in the cells after a drugs bust, Cash knows fine well that you don't need to be locked up behind bars to feel trapped - by life, by convention and by your own bad self. It's only after he steps within the walls of the infamous maximum security penitentiary that he's able, finally, to free himself from his inner demons.

As you'd hope, the music throughout the film is fantastic, 'steady like a train, sharp like a razor', toe-tappin', gut wrenchin', rockabilly blues deep friend in heartfelt Southern gospel harmonies. Much of the action is given over to loving recreations of Cash and Carter's live shows, with both Phoenix and Witherspoon providing their own gutsy, remarkably accurate vocals. But it's the Folsom Prison sequence which truly electrifies, proving once and for all just why the Man in Black was so damned great.

With its raw, sincere performances and uncompromising rock'n'roll attitude, Walk The Line harks back irresistibly to an age when music was more than just a noisy stream of endless pop pap, a monotonous half-heard background to our daily lives, to a time when music really meant something. When music could damn you or save your soul. Absorbing, emotional and ultimately uplifting, this film looks great, sounds even better and refuses to play by the rules. Just like Johnny Cash himself.

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