Hello, He’s Not Johnny Cash
It seems like so much nitpicking, but why is the Johnny Cash biopic called Walk the Line when a far better name would have been Ring of Fire? James Mangold, co-writer and director, might argue that he chose the former because of its lyrics dealing with the temptations that crop up when a man loves a woman who ain’t his wife. The film’s intended to be a love story, after all, about a married man by the name of Johnny Cash who dumps his first wife for June Carter, the woman Cash had dreamed of ever since he was a little boy and she was a young girl singing gospel on late-night radio.
Using “Walk the Line” as his title is in keeping with Mangold’s dryly literal and obvious interpretation of Johnny Cash’s tale, already recounted in two autobiographies and myriad other books and boxed-set histories; the filmmaker all but gives us the day-to-day blow-by-blows of Cash’s early years, from rising Sun Records act to falling star almost done in by amphetamines. Ring of Fire would have been appropriate, too — it was written by Carter and made legendary by Cash well before theirs was a legal relationship — but it would have promised a far more incendiary film than Mangold’s. At least it wasn’t called Cry, Cry, Cry.
Or, for that matter, Ray, the film against which Walk the Line will be compared. In many ways, they’re the same movie — both are tales of flawed geniuses who belong on rock and roll’s Mount Rushmore, told by fans and containing performances by actors struggling not to offer rote impressions of men who are easily parodied. And both were directed by lightweights not in the league of their subject matter — unless one considers Mangold’s Kate & Leopold a significant work.
Ray succeeded solely because of its star. Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles, and it was his riveting, star-making performance that allowed Taylor Hackford’s dull hagiography to transcend the standard rise-and-fall-and-rise biopic. Walk the Line does not fare as well; Joaquin Phoenix looks like Cash from a distance, but he comes off like a child trying to walk in big-boy boots. Phoenix simply doesn’t have the gravitas of Cash; he looks overwhelmed by the role, as though he’s struggling to outrun the ghost over his shoulder.
Mangold, like Hackford, suffers the fatal flaw of wanting to explain the artist, but his film offers a phony version of history, suggesting that once Cash and Carter were married in 1968, shortly after his Folsom Prison comeback, he was forever clean and sober. Hardly. And for all the affection Mangold feels for Cash and Carter, the movie feels oddly dispassionate — more like a lecture than a story. There Johnny is as a boy, sharing a cramped bed with doomed big brother Jack. Later, there’s the cheatin’, the druggin’, the singin’, the sinnin’ — lather, rinse, repeat till it’s the late 1960s. It doesn’t help that Phoenix and Witherspoon sing the songs themselves. Phoenix is no Jamie Foxx. Or Johnny Cash.