Despite growing up in the home of country music, I've had to learn to love it. Johnny Cash was another acquired taste for me, but like other acquired tastes (e.g., my favorite musician ever, Bob Dylan), Cash is a taste worth acquiring. I knew very little about Cash's life, save the fact that he was married to June Carter and the two of them died within months of each other.
This film will inevitably be compared to Ray, and yeah, it's another biopic of a music legend that will probably get some Academy recognition. But Walk the Line is quite a different movie, I think, and is more internal.
The movie starts with Johnny about to take the stage at Folsom Prison for his famous live recording. But we get sidetracked for about 90 minutes while we see what led to this moment.
J.R. Cash was a second son in more than just age, and one of his many personal demons is born when his older brother dies and he overhears his father wishing it had been him instead. Suddenly John is grown up and heading for the army. He soon becomes engaged to a girl he barely knows, and after a failed attempt to be a salesman auditions for a record label.
The main thrust of the story is Cash's relationship and stormy courtship of June Carter, and it is played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The two of them really, really make the movie work. They have such a great chemistry, and you get so frustrated for them as they dance around their feelings for each other.
Perhaps the most emotional scene was seeing how June was initially inspired to write "Ring of Fire." I used to hate this song - it seemed cheesy and I loathed the trumpet thing. But I felt very differently once I heard the story about her writing it about her feelings for Cash. So I actually sat down and listened to it, and darned if it isn't one of the great songs ever.
Love is a burning thing
and it makes a firery ring
bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire...
I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns,burns,burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.
The taste of love is sweet
when hearts like our's meet
I fell for you like a child
oh, but the fire went wild.
In the film, June has left the tour because she gave in to her feelings for John one night. She goes home to her daughters and she stops the car halfway down the drive and starts crying, saying to herself "It burns, it burns..." Amazing.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the movie, though, is all the performance scenes. Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, and it's incredible how much they sound like Cash and Carter. You can close your eyes and it's almost like listening to the real thing. And the energy is so real. Especially in the Folsom Prison scene. You can really see what made Cash a star and why people identified with him so much.
There have apparently been complaints about the portrayal of Cash's first wife, but I think the film handled this pretty well. I think the movie wants you to be a little conflicted about Cash falling for June. But you get the subtle hints about why things were not right between them - that basically Vivian didn't like the idea of sharing John with his music and his fans.
Wonderful, wonderful movie. It's getting all kinds of Oscar talk. I don't know about Best Picture, but I think Phoenix and Witherspoon are pretty solid bets for acting categories.