...an endearing tribute to a justly popular country singer.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"I hear that train a-coming',
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since I don't know when.
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin' on,
But that train keeps a-rollin'
On down to San Antone."

To enjoy this movie, you'd better like the music of Johnny Cash. It's there from beginning to end.

The last few years have seen probably as many or more movie biographies as any years in Hollywood history, and 2005's Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" is as good as most of them. The obvious comparison is 2004's "Ray," the fine biography of Ray Charles. Both films are filled with the musicians' well-loved music. But, oddly, "Walk the Line" might also be compared to a lesser 2004 biopic, "Beyond the Sea," about singer Bobby Darin. Let me explain.

It all has to do with the singing, which is where all of these singer biographies have to start. "Ray" had actor Jamie Foxx lip-syncing to the actual music of Ray Charles. "Beyond the Sea" had Kevin Spacey doing his own singing. Both approaches worked well, but only because Spacey sounded so very much like Darin. (The fact that he was twice Darin's age and that the script had nowhere to go with the plot rather doomed that flick from the start, but that's another story.) In "Walk the Line," stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do their own singing, with mixed results.

Here's the thing: Probably 90% of the time, singers in movies always lip-sync their songs, even when it's their own voice. I have no doubt that Phoenix and Witherspoon recorded their songs first and lip-synced them later in the movie. In a musical, as essentially these biographies of musicians are, the music is paramount, so it must initially be recorded to perfection. If filmmakers use the real recordings by the real musicians, there is no problem, given that the original recordings are in good enough shape to be brought up to current audio standards. In the case of "Ray," the original recordings sounded great. So, why did Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing? I suppose it was to add an element of spontaneity to the performances. Or because they could.

But the fact is, no matter how good both Phoenix and Witherspoon sound (and they do sound good mimicking Cash's and Carter's vocal styles), they don't sound like Cash or Carter to anyone who knows what the real singers sounded like. It is, therefore, somewhat disconcerting to hear actors obviously imitating these well-known singers when the filmmakers could so easily have used the real voices. OK, I know this may seem like a trivial harp to many of the movie's admirers, and I count myself an admirer despite the cavil. Nevertheless, it is a minor distraction, and one that might not have been necessary (although my colleague at DVD Town had a different take in his theatrical review).

In any case, what we have in "Walk the Line" is a fairly straightforward biographical story of sometimes soap-opera proportions, saved by the music itself and by the first-rate performances of its stars. The movie is worth a watch, and it might even prompt a few viewers to go out and buy more of Cash's actual recordings.

The film does not attempt to chronicle all of Cash's life, but it does cover his boyhood in 1944, his leaving home several years later to join the Air Force, his struggles to break into show business, his first marriage, his meeting with June Carter, his rise to stardom, his difficult times with drugs, his romance with Carter (even though both of them were married to other people), his fall from stardom, his eventual marriage to Carter in 1968, and his return to the top of the charts. The movie ends decades before Cash's death, leaving it to the viewer to assume the details of his later life. The bulk of the story takes place in the 1950s and 60s as Cash is contending with most of the major problems in his life.

Born an Arkansas farm boy in 1932 during the Great Depression, Cash didn't seem likely to wind up one of the most-popular country-rock singers in the world, particularly as his father was so dead set against him making anything of himself in the music world and always seemed to resent his son's subsequent success. Cash's father, Ray Cash, is played by Robert Patrick ("T2") in a surprisingly convincing portrayal. I shouldn't be surprised, of course, that Patrick is such a good actor, but he's played in so many action movies over the years, it's hard to think of him as such a good, serious dramatic actor.

Probably most fascinating to me was that in the mid 1950s when Cash was recording for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, he was touring the countryside by car, driving from one-night stand to one-night stand with fellow legends-to-be Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), and June Carter (Witherspoon). Can you imagine what a ticket to such an event would have been worth if people knew what these folks were going to amount to? Can you imagine how much we'd all liked to have been there? And can you imagine how lucky the people were who saw these concerts and today can say, "Yeah, I was there"?

Based on the books "The Man in Black" by Johnny Cash and "Cash: An Autobiography" by Cash and Patrick Carr, the movie was directed by James Mangold ("Cop Land," "Kate & Leopold," "Girl, Interrupted," "Identity"), the script co-written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold, and the original music composed by T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "Cold Mountain"). Together with Phoenix and Witherspoon making exceptionally good leads, the movie is a stirring testament to the power of one person's love and faith in another person turning that person's life around. So it was in terms of June Carter's influence on Cash's life when things seemed hopeless for him. However, I would add that there is little in the picture an audience couldn't foresee, even if the audience didn't know much about the real Johnny Cash. While the movie is a good recreation of a time and a place, and a good recreation of an artist's life on the road, ultimately, it is in the performances and the music that the movie thrives.

The film's epilogue tells us that "In 1968, 'At Folsom Prison' became one of the most popular recordings of all time, outselling even the Beatles. That same year, John and June married.... For the next 35 years they raised their children, recorded music, toured and played the world together.

June passed in May, 2003.

Four months later, John followed."

On the keep case, Fox list the film's aspect ratio as 2.39:1. I've seen more than a few films listed at 2.40:1, but none that I can remember listed at 2.39:1. (IMDb lists "Walk the Line" at a more conventional 2.35:1.) For clarification my colleague, Eddie Feng, says that "for years, the 'scope' ratio has been referred to as 2.35:1 (for various reasons), but when a scope movie is projected onto a theatre screen, its actual aspect ratio is 2.39:1. 2.39:1 looks awkward, which is why a lot of people have been using the 2.40:1 number." Fair enough. Be that as it may, the disc's anamorphic image measures a ratio approximately 2.20:1 across my widescreen Sony HD television, so the point may be moot.

Now, here's the interesting thing about the picture quality. Despite this movie being an important and popular release, the transfer is not quite up to Fox's usual high standards. The colors are vibrant, but they can also look oversaturated at times and maybe a tad too bright for ultimate realism; the overall delineation is good but not great; the clarity is occasionally veiled by a touch of grain; and the general appearance is sometimes rough. Put it another way: Fox's transfers are usually much cleaner, clearer, sharper, and more natural than this. Then again, maybe it's just my eyes. The picture quality is certainly adequate.

The sound is available via Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, the DD 5.1 that I listened to being more than adequate for the occasion. Indeed, it's excellent. There is a very wide front-channel stereo spread; terrific surround sound in the rear channels, immensely helpful in reproducing the ambient noises of live concerts; strong bass and transient response; and almost ideal clarity for midrange dialogue. The result is an enjoyable listening experience all the way around.

On the single-disc edition that I watched, the major bonus items are an audio commentary by co-writer and director James Mangold and ten deleted scenes with optional director commentary. On the main commentary, Mangold tells us the movie is about "a man who got a second chance in life because he was blessed enough to be visited by an angel in the form of a really incredibly great woman." Mangold has a mellifluous speaking voice and a pleasant manner, making the commentary easy to enjoy. The deleted scenes last about twenty-three minutes and are in anamorphic widescreen.

In addition, there are thirty-six scene selections; a theatrical trailer and a soundtrack promo; and two additional previews at start-up for "Kingdom of Heaven" and "The Family Stone." Spoken languages come in English, French, and Spanish; and subtitles in English and Spanish. For those viewers wanting more in the way of extras, Fox also make available a "2-Disc DVD Collector's Edition," which I hope to report on later.

Parting Thoughts:
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "Walk the Line" for five Academy Awards: Best Actor (Phoenix); Best Actress (Witherspoon); Best Editing (Michael McCusker); Best Costume Design (Arianne Phillips); and Best Sound (Paul Massey, Doug Hemphill, Peter F. Kurland). It is only in the area of costume design that I would question the Academy's decision. I mean, how much creativity could have gone into the designing of a black shirt? :) For her fine performance, Ms. Witherspoon won the Oscar for Best Actress.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do terrific work and deserve their Oscar nods; they are especially persuasive in their duets together, generating an energy level that can sometimes leave the viewer exhausted. However, be aware that no matter how much they may sound "like" Cash and Carter, they aren't Cash and Carter, the differences in their voices is pointed up in the closing-credits number, which is the only one we hear done by the real singers. Nevertheless, through their endless charisma Phoenix and Witherspoon provide the movie with a strong, fresh spark. "Walk the Line" is an endearing tribute to a justly popular country singer.

"I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you're mine,
I walk the line."


Film Value