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Walk the Line (6/10)

by Tony Medley

When I say that Reese Witherspoon (June Carter) steals a film about Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), that should be a telling commentary on this film, but I’ll go on.

If one ever doubted that there is only one Johnny Cash, Phoenix proves it in this movie. I’ve heard that Phoenix wanted to use his own voice and that the producers acceded. The Production Notes imply that they wanted him to use it all along. Regardless, the decision was dead wrong and incomprehensible. It is amazing that a filmmaker could make a movie about someone with as distinctive a voice as Johnny Cash and not have the lead actor lip sync to Johnny’s voice. There was a perfect example of how bad such a decision could be last year when Kevin Spacey destroyed a good biopic about Bobby Darin by insisting on using his own voice in “Beyond the Sea.”


Johnny Cash’s voice was one in a million. U2’s Bono says, “Locusts and honey…not since John the  Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness…” Bob Dylan said, in Rolling Stone:


 “I Walk the Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth…It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once… Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified.


So the definitive biopic of the singularly unique Johnny Cash doesn’t use that voice! It was the voice that made Cash a star. But for that voice, he would have been more like Jimmy Webb, a songwriter, not an acclaimed, international star. Not using Cash’s voice is worse than stupid; the result is that Phoenix’s otherwise excellent performance is overshadowed by the absence of Cash’s magical renderings of his music.


I’m not a fan of lip syncing when the music is the star, as when bringing Broadway musicals to the screen. But when the star is the singer, the singer’s voice should be used. The standard was set by Larry Parks in “The Jolson Story” (1946). Can you imagine a biopic of Al using Larry Parks’ voice? Or a biopic of Ray Charles using Jamie Foxx’s voice? A good actor can lip sync. By not lip syncing to Cash’s voice, this film disrespects him.


Combined with the disappointing music, the film is too long and lacks pace. Instead of spellbinding concert footage and terrific music, like in last year’s “Ray,” we get an abundance of shots of Johnny thinking and doing drugs and suffering and yearning after June.


Given Phoenix’s mediocre singing voice, I don’t blame director James Mangold for cutting the music short. I don’t remember one song being sung through from beginning to end. We just get a few measures, maybe a chorus, and that’s it. Like “Chicago” (2002), which feigned dancing by using short cuts, “Walk the Line” feigns singing by cutting the songs short.


That said, Witherspoon’s voice, which is also her own, is very good; much, much better than Phoenix’s. The best performance is a duet of “Time is a-wastin’” with June and Johnny, but it’s as truncated as “Ring of Fire” and, even, “I Walk the Line.”


The film also plays down Cash’s infidelity and his cruelty in dumping his wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), the mother of his children, for June. Modern day Hollywood just can’t get commiserative over how a selfish, overly indulged superstar dumps a loyal spouse in order to chase his hormones. The unsympathetic portrayal of Cash’s treatment of Vivian is disgraceful.


It also rewrites history in the portrayal of the concert at Folsom Prison, which shows prisoners jamming right up next to the stage. In fact, there was extraordinary security at the prison, since many of the inmates were brutal, sadistic killers, and none of the inmates could get close. Although I have no facts, I question the veracity of the scene in which Cash is shown inciting the prisoners by complaining about the dirty drinking water.


The first hour is slow. The second hour picks up a little because Witherspoon is in it and she sings more, but not enough. She gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Witherspoon is as important to this movie as June Carter was to Johnny in real life.


If this were a film only about Johnny Cash, a writer, I wouldn’t have been as disappointed. It tells a good, dramatic story with exceptional performances by Witherspoon and Phoenix. But it’s about Johnny Cash the singer. There’s no law that a movie can’t tell a good, dramatic story about a troubled musician, but still include wonderful musical numbers (like “Ray”). By not getting a full exposition of Johnny Cash singing the songs that made him a superstar, I left “Walk the Line” feeling deprived and let down.

November 15, 2005