"Walk the Line" is a good film with very good performances.
Virtually every great artist has one thing in common. At some point in their life, they abused alcohol, drugs, the opposite sex, their lover(s), their children, themselves, friendships or a combination of any of the above. In many cases, they overcame these problems to go on and create even more outstanding work, cementing their reputations in history. For a few of these people, the problems proved too much, bringing a premature end to a promising life. Hollywood executives recognize that either scenario is pretty much guaranteed to help create an interesting film because each is inherently filled with drama. Therefore, it stands to reason that any biopic of a musician will feature the same element, the lead character overcoming an obstacle. Without this, the story wouldn't be as interesting.
Because we know that a biopic of a musician is going to feature a struggle, of some type, some of the inherent drama dissipates. It would, after all, be boring to watch a film about an artist who has a great life, no problems, everything is rosy. Fortunately, the last few musician biopics have married their familiar stories with great performances and good to great directing, enhancing our appreciation of their life. Last year's "Ray" features an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx, who brings the character to life, with the aid of director Taylor Hackford.
If "Walk the Line", the new biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, were made a few years from now, there would be fewer comparisons to the Ray Charles film. But as it comes on the heels, comparisons are inevitable and will be plentiful.
Joaquin Phoenix does a good job of bringing singer Johnny Cash to life. He doesn't really attempt to imitate the icon as much as interpret his life. At times, especially when singing, Phoenix's voice attains the deep, resonant timber of Cash's, but he doesn't walk around mimicking throughout. This seems entirely natural. When he is performing, singing, his stage persona is different, selling himself as a character to his adoring fans.
At times, I found myself thinking "Wow, Joaquin Phoenix is doing a good job." More often than not, Phoenix was doing a good job acting. Phoenix acts, he doesn't become. Because we are pulled out of the performance like this, recognizing his work as an actor, he doesn't completely transform himself into the singer. Jamie Foxx managed this on a much more consistent basis, transforming himself into Ray Charles. He became the singer, losing himself in the mannerisms, speech and actions of the singer. In a way, Foxx was mimicking Charles, but he was doing this so completely and successfully he got lost in the character.
Remarkably, Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did all of their own singing and this is where Phoenix really shines. As mentioned, his voice reaches a deeper timber, reminiscent of the singer's and it is difficult to tell that it isn't Cash singing. I am not overly familiar with the Johnny Cash songbook, but when Phoenix sings, the signature tunes sure sound authentic.
Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter, the love of Johnny Cash's life. I think people are generally much less familiar with her life and her work, so Witherspoon has a great deal more latitude in her performance, building a three dimensional character. Because she is able to more fully become "June Carter", her character is more successful. Witherspoon brings all of the facets of June's life to the screen; she conveys her conflicts with her religion when she gets divorced (for the first time), she conveys her friendship for Johnny, her ability to help him through his addiction, her onstage persona and more.
Reese Witherspoon also does her own vocals throughout. In Witherspoon's case, it is easier to tell that it is the actress singing. Her voice doesn't change and you recognize her accent throughout. I can honestly say I wouldn't recognize a song sung by the real June Carter Cash, so I have nothing to compare her vocal abilities to, but she also sounds good.
The two performances are very good, but it is strange that the actor portraying the less recognizable person should be more successful. Both actors are probably doing comparable work, but because we know more about Johnny Cash, recognize him as an icon, Phoenix has to work harder to make his performance seem interesting, believable and real. Ultimately, Phoenix does a better job with the singing and Witherspoon does a better job with her acting.
The film opens with inmates at Folsom Prison chanting and stomping their feet, trying to get Cash to come back from a break and continue the concert. As Cash pauses, trying to relax, he remembers back to his childhood. This is a fairly conventional setup for a biopic. Many recent film biographies wisely chose to depict only a portion of the subject's life, concentrating on this period, going into more depth. In "Walk the Line", the majority of the film tells the story of Cash's life from twelve year old cotton picker to his performance at Folsom Prison. The performance at Folsom provides a natural climax for the film and his story. And it is a great sequence, with Phoenix channeling the spirit of Johnny Cash, but the real point of this story is the romance between Johnny and June, so the film continues on for a bit until June finally agrees to marry Johnny. This is an interesting moment, and the two clearly loved one another, but the film really should've ended with the performance at Folsom. Continuing on, it seems anticlimactic.
Director James Mangold does a good, if unspectacular job with the material. Yes, everything looks good, but the film doesn't match the quality of the performances from the two leads. Mangold's work is a bit disappointing because the film is a really straightforward biopic. The director's previous work includes "Identity", a really underrated thriller with a twist, and "Heavy", his first film, also an underrated independent film. With the exception of the turkey "Kate and Leopold", Mangold's earlier work contains elements that help it rise above the pack. He has shown that he isn't content simply making a big budget studio picture. In "Walk the Line"; he pretty much leaves the visual elements alone, photographing everything in a very straight forward and simple way. Everything looks good, but it doesn't contain any artistic flair.
Also, there are more than a few scenes involving Johnny, June and a number of other rising musicians touring on the same circuit. These rising musicians included Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Jerry Lee Lewis is given the most screen time of the group and the actor playing him, Waylon Payne, seems to have a lot of fun bringing the outrageous musician to life. The remainder of the group sticks mainly to the sidelines, offering brief glimpses of them before and after they perform. Because we see so little of them, except for a few of the familiar iconic trademarks of Presley and Orbison, they seem to be almost cartoon characters, they serve as distractions, pulling us out of the story every time they appear. Cash says something to Elvis as they pass during a concert, then Cash stops to watch Elvis perform for a few moments. Then our attention is drawn to the audience is looking at Elvis on stage and the actor playing him. "Oh, so he knew Elvis..." At this point, it takes a few moments to get lost in the film again. It would have been better to actually never see these characters, maybe only catching glimpses of them, from the wings, or from behind, the bright stage lights obscuring their features.
A biopic should teach you something significant about the subject's life, something you didn't already know. Because "Walk the Line" is about two people, we should learn something about both of the characters. Ultimately, we learn more about June Carter, through Witherspoon's performance, partly because of the actor's work and partly because we know less about Johnny Cash's true love than we do about the iconic singer.