Director: James Mangold
With: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Runtime: 136 mins
Walk the Line chronicles the life of Johnny Cash, one of the greats of American music, and it follows his journey to fame and fortune from his home farm in Arkansas. Walk the Line is a straight no-nonsense biopic, doing exactly what it says on the tin. What lifts it above a usually mediocre genre is its heart and style, and in particular two marvellous performances from its stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
I should point out that I knew very little about Johnny Cash before seeing this film, which is both a good and a bad thing when it comes to watching his biopic. The struggle with drug addiction, Cash’s traumatic upbringing, his failed marriage, his friendships with musical legends like Jerry Lee Louis and Elvis, and especially his bitter-sweet romance with Witherspoon’s June Carter was all news to me.
Consequently, I avoided the traditional pitfall of the biopic formula in that I wasn’t bored by the plot, which in Walk the Line is secondary to its style anyway. While there may be dull moments for those who know the story of the ‘Man in Black’, I was hooked from its pulsing, mesmerising start to its tear-jerking end. On the other hand, I had no prior connection with Cash. Unlike the millions of adoring fans who have obsessed over his music since the mid-1950s, I couldn’t compare the finer points of Phoenix’s singing with the Man in Black’s blueprints.
This does not, however, detract from the majesty of Phoenix and Witherspoon’s performances. An actor’s performance in a biopic, especially of a much loved legend, inevitably becomes an impersonation. Although I can only retrospectively compare the two in their musical styles (it is yet another testament to the film that I decided to listen to more of Cash), I know the quality of the star’s performances. Phoenix is bold and brooding, displaying magnetic power throughout. Witherspoon is even better: full of charm and charisma, but also intensely vulnerable.
The film is at its best when it is just the two of them, both on stage and off. They both sing and perform all the music, apart from the end credits, and the music is exceptional, even for an audience not accustomed to Cash’s music scene. Phoenix and Witherspoon make this film something special. They have both been nominated for Oscars, and they both deserve them. They deserve every accolade that comes their way for making this film one of the very best biopics of all time.