Never before have I been so nervous to screen a film but in the case of "Walk the Line", I looked forward to and dreaded the date, fearful that Hollywood might somehow caricaturize or disrespect the memory of the late Johnny Cash, who meant so much to so many. For the film's promotional TV trailers, the music was some godawful generic modern rock clearly selected by someone in marketing – not a good sign. However, I'm gratified to report that the Man in Black has officially been bio-picked with great care and respect.
Rather than squeezing over 70 years of the man's life into two hours, director James Mangold and screenwriter Gill Dennis, focused on the pivotal years when Cash was dark, troubled and on his way down following quick success. Balancing domestic demands with the highs of touring resulted in a sleepless, angry troublemaker addicted to amphetamines, hardly the spiritual grandfatherly figure that Rick Rubin re-delivered to us in the '90s with the Grammy-winning American Recordings series.
Joaquin Phoenix aptly depicts a young Cash, tightly coiled, pacing like a panther and full of a heat he himself doesn't understand. Phoenix knew little of Cash prior to filming and had never played guitar or sang yet he quickly got up to speed. Same goes for Reese Witherspoon, who spent months learning the auto harp and researching June Carter, the love of Johnny's life and the woman who ultimately brought him salvation. The on-screen chemistry is palpable and important, not just for entertainment sake, but because the passion that Johnny and June had for one another was known the world over. Furthermore, all music scenes were actual live performances lending the production a powerful ring of truth . . . and fire, of course.
Other notable performances include the feature debut of singer Shelby Lynne, nearly unrecognizable as a timid Kerry Cash, John's mother. Also, Dallas Roberts, as Sam Phillips, delivers an unforgettable monologue that proves pivotal for young John. Robert Patrick also turns in an immovable portrayal of Ray Cash, John's proud, unfeeling father.
"Walk the Line" deftly revisits the birth of rock-and-roll and reflects this magical era without sugarcoating it. When we see John touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, June Carter and Roy Orbison, we also see them acting as their own roadies and drivers – humble and impervious to the legends they would soon become. The physical grind of it all and what these young punks risked amidst the conformity of '50s, against the backdrop of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Nat King Cole, is part of the story here.
When John becomes hooked on pills (usually chased with alcohol or morphine) he becomes fully, achingly human and it's not pretty. The film leads up to the seminal event, the recording of "Live at Folsom Prison", a huge success, outselling even the Beatles. If it t'weren't for the fully armed intervention of the Carter family (even mother Maybelle chased off riffraff with a rifle) Cash would not have much relevance today.
The real John and June spent many hours with the filmmakers and approved the final script though both passed before filming began. "Walk the Line" ends with their version of "Wastin' Time" which is something, once together, they never did.