There was something special about musician Johnny Cash—a mix of charisma and talent measured together in just the right doses that produces stars. Few performers have it these days because, even though it sounds like a cliché, they just don't make 'em like Johnny Cash anymore. Or Elvis Presley. Or Chuck Berry. Or Jerry Lee Lewis. Or Little Richard. They were the first. The pioneers of the teen rebellion called rock 'n' roll. They each had their unique persona that transfixed the youth of the world, while terrifying their parents. For Cash, that persona was a black-clad stranger who had journeyed over from the dark side to testify with an unholy fusion of rock, country, folk and gospel. At a time when others sang about rockin' 'round the clock, or tutti frutti, or being all shook up, Cash recounted things like shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die.
The brooding persona of Cash unfolds in Walk the Line, a biopic from director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl Interrupted). Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny, the son of a sharecropper who fled the oppressive confines of the family homestead for the Air Force. While stationed in Germany, Johnny purchases a guitar and begins to write music, inspired in part by the tunes he listened to in his youth, especially those of June Carter of the Carter Family. Out of the service and back in the States, Johnny struggles with providing for a wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) who doesn't understand him, and a growing roost of children. He decides to take a shot at being a musician, and through the raw intensity of what would become his greatest song—"Folsom Prison Blues"—he lands a deal with Sun Records, home of Elvis. Soon he's on the meteoric rise to stardom, and as he crosses paths with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), he is struck by love.
As a biopic, Walk the Line never strays from the standard formula or trappings of the genre. Cash's life is reduced to a series of episodic defining moments, including the requisite childhood tragedy that haunts him forever, battle with drug addiction and healing love. And none of this is to say Walk the Line is a bad film, because it's not. To compare it with recent entries in the category, it is good the way Ray was good—but not great they way Capote is fuckin' great. As a musician's story, it falls short of such timeless classics as Coal Miner's Daughter and Lady Sings the Blues.
Like all biopics, Walk the Line's ultimate success is built around its performances. Phoenix and Witherspoon are both good—performing their own vocals admirably—but Phoenix never transforms himself the way Jamie Foxx did in Ray, and Witherspoon is no Sissy Spacek in her Coal Miner's Daughter Loretta Lynn role. Still, their performances are the foundation on which Walk the Line comfortably rests. And while it is not the best film of the year, it is good, and should please fans of Johnny Cash—a group that should include just about everyone.
Rated PG-13. Opens Friday, Nov. 18. Pioneer Place, St. Johns Twin, Lloyd Cinema, Eastport, Division, Moreland, Oak Grove, OMSI, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cornelius, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lake Twin (starting Nov. 23), Movies on TV, Sandy, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Cinema 99, Cinetopia, City Center, Vancouver Plaza.