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
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
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.
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.