Monday, November 21, 2005

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash,"
and this is my movie

Warden: Mr. Cash, try to refrain from performing any tunes that remind the inmates that they're in prison.
Johnny Cash: You think they forgot?

As the opening credits of "Walk the Line" rolled to a crescendo of stomping feet in Folsom Prison, I couldn't help but be worried.

What would Hollywood do with the story of Johnny Cash, a man who spent most of his professional life flipping off anything that could be called the establishment?

What I quickly learned, however, was that it is me who is woefully ignorant about the life of the late man in black.

Several years back at one of our annual old book sales I picked up the holy trinity of books about Cash, by Cash: "Cash," "The Man in Black" and "The Man in White." Had I bothered to read the first two volumes, I would have learned that the story of Johnny and June Carter Cash is one of burning, yearning love that burns even brighter on screen in "Walk the Line."

Though it manages a large ensemble cast with ease, all the characters except Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny and Reese Witherspoon's June are wisely kept in the background. When those actors are playing Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and, most memorably, Waylon Payne as a delightfully wicked Jerry Lee Lewis, that's no small feat.

On paper it would seem to be monotonous as Johnny asks for June's hand and is rebuked again and again, but the sparks between these two are so hot it rarely gets boring on screen.

Like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles before him, Phoenix invokes the spirit of Johnny Cash with almost chilling precision. From the smallest detail, down to the almost-cleft upper lip, he is the young Johnny Cash. And in early scenes from "Walk the Line," when he's on tour with his Sun Records mates, his singing and stage presence are pitch perfect.

He gets upstaged, however, by a shockingly good Reese Witherspoon. Until now I thought her range only went from cute to really cute, but again, I was wrong. Her skill in playing June Carter from the precocious young talent who was overshadowed by the other members of the Carter clan to the savior who would rescue Cash from his worst demons is fun to watch. Until now, I only would have expected to see Reese and Oscar in the same sentence in yet another revival of "The Odd Couple."

I've been railing for years, mostly at work to anyone who has the misfortune of sitting near me, about Hollywood's inability to cast Southerners to play Southerners. They let Nicole Kidman murder one of my favorite books, "Cold Mountain." Perhaps after this tremendous star turn from Nashvillean Witherspoon, who threatened to abandon the project if it weren't shot in and around Memphis, someone will get the message.

Before they died, Johnny and June anointed the two young stars to play them in "Walk the Line," just as Ray Charles did with Jamie Foxx. It's tempting and almost impossible not to draw more connections between the two biopics, but doing so only shows the glaring faults of "Ray."

Though Jamie Foxx was electric as Charles, and well-deserving of his Oscar for Best Actor (though personally I would have voted for Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda), I was bored during much of the movie. When Foxx isn't bringing Charles to life on stage, it plays out like a very overly melodramatic TV movie, often dragging to the point of audience distraction (well, my distraction, anyway.)

By focusing on a short period of time, from about 1955-1968 or so, and almost exclusively on the love story at its core, "Walk the Line" avoids many of "Ray" 's pitfalls and keeps the story moving at the driving, train-like pace of Cash's signature songs.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

No comments: