I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit tired of all these "Extended Editions" that are being released. Most of them take a handful of deleted scenes and insert them into the film and call it a day, while others include so much from the cutting-room floor that it turns into a whole new (and not necessarily improved) movie. So what does "Walk the Line" do? Well, I have to admit that the first time I saw it I wasn't able to identify too many scenes that didn't appear in the 2006 DVD release. Maybe that's partly because that release featured the theatrical version of the film at an already-long 135 minutes. This extended cut doesn't just add a little to the top, like an unneeded haircut in reverse. Eighteen minutes have been added--but as far as I can tell, it was a little here, and a little there. Ten deleted scenes were included as bonus features in the previous release, and here there are just two: "At the bank" and "Memphis streets." So it appears as though director James Mangold (or someone) inserted the other eight scenes: "Jack's funeral," "Cry cry cry," "Broken record," "Ezra and Maybelle Carter," "I still miss someone," "On the phone," and "The sermon." Does it make a significant difference? I'm sure for many people it will, but for me I'd be just as happy to have either version in my home video collection.
That's because "Walk the Line" seemed to have Oscar buzz even before it hit the theaters. Someone has to start it. Maybe it's a job: Oscar buzzer. Go to all the movie theaters in your territory and by-pass the line to go directly to the front, then walk past everyone waiting to get in while you say to your companion, "This movie has Oscar written all over it." What everyone heard beforehand was "This movie has Oscar written all over it," and the statue had Joaquin Phoenix's name on it because he sings his own songs.
Fair enough. Though, the first time I watch Phoenix open his mouth to sing, I'm thinking, "Yikes, not even close." Then he gradually begins to pick up the tone and style of Johnny Cash, as well as the Cash sneer that seems to come almost naturally to Phoenix because of that famously distinctive scar on his upper lip. By the time he's onstage belting out the countrified R&B tune "Get Rhythm" to an audience of adoring rock-a-billy lovers, dang if he doesn't sound exactly like Cash. And when he raises his guitar above the shoulders to pluck it and his whole upper torso stiffens, it's vintage Johnny C., and you'd have to say that Phoenix's portrayal of the Man in Black is every bit as strong as Jamie Foxx's uncanny channeling of Ray Charles. And hey, while Foxx did his own piano playing, the man lip-synched, the way that any normal, sane actor would. I mean, who in his right mind would presume to be able to mimic a style as distinctive as Cash's train-rolling baritone? And because Phoenix, or perhaps director James Mangold, wanted to show the development of Cash's style in the early days rather than jumping right into the deep end with a finished sound, it means that we see him sound not like Cash at all, then start to sound a little like him, then more, more, and finally, bingo. As any singer can tell you, it's a heckuva lot harder playing with levels of musical competence than it is belting out a single sound. But Phoenix does a great job with the vocals on all levels.
Still, when I saw this film way before the Oscars and wrote about it for this site, the one who impressed me was Reese Witherspoon as country legend June Carter. I predicted then that she would win the Best Actress Oscar, and of course she did. That doesn't make me a genius, mind you. I think anyone who looked at the former star of "Legally Blonde" or even "Sweet Home Alabama" would have recognized instantly how much she elevated her performance for "Walk the Line." As the perky Carter, Witherspoon gets a chance to explore a real complex character--and by "complex" I don't mean feeling goofy one minute and pensive the next. I mean, here's a character with real contradictions and layers that you could peel away, except it's an infinity onion and you'd end up peeling over the same layers again and again, because that's how complex people are. And like Phoenix, Witherspoon handles her own vocals. In this case, she actually has a clearer and stronger voice than Carter, whom we hear singing in duet for the film's closing credits--no doubt to give us a basis for comparison. In a way, Carter is a more interesting character than Cash, because she isn't as predictable. And when you see them in duet--Phoenix as Cash, and Witherspoon as Carter--it's the latter that you're drawn to. When they sing "Jackson," which earned a Grammy for Cash and Carter, it's incredibly exciting.
The film begins, appropriately, with the band at Folsom Prison playing the rousing intro to Cash's mega-hit, "Folsom Prison Blues" (1968), which resulted in the singer's first solo Grammy. The joint is rockin' and the energy level is high voltage--What better way to pull an audience in?--but Cash is backstage in the woodshop room, staring at the blade of a table saw. Then it's flashback to his boyhood in Kingsland, Arkansas, where he was one of two sons born to poor sharecroppers who pick cotton by hand as a family. The father (Robert Patrick) is a drunk who's abusive and favors the son who, like Ray Charles' brother, never makes it past childhood. But there's less visual razzle-dazzle in "Walk the Line," and less heavy-handedness in the way that Mangold chooses to depict the impact that the childhood loss had on Cash, or his state of mind while under the influence of the pills he later grew addicted to. In my book, that's a plus. Along the way there are the type of mythical, anecdotal scenes we've come to expect from biopics, especially ones depicting the lives of musicians. In this case, there's the legendary Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) and his "discovery" of Cash, plus scenes of road life and Cash's desperate attempts to connect with parents who still mourn the death of "the good son."
But the focus in "Walk the Line" is on the relationship between Cash and Carter, and the drugs, the famous arrest, and the fooling around with road groupies doesn't get in the way of their story. Neither do the extended families, who are as much a part of their lives as our own families are in ours. The result is a natural-flowing film that takes you by those clapping hands in the opening scene and leads you confidently to an ending that wraps things up in satisfying fashion. The script is strong (albeit familiar for a biopic), the performances are strong, the music is strong, and director Mangold has the good sense to employ a light touch to bring it all together. He manages to walk a fine line between melodrama and drama that these true stories demand, and, except for the portrayal of Cash's father, avoids the pitfall of portraying sinners and saints.
T-Bone Burnett comes up with a lively musical score that almost seamlessly ties the tunes together. We learn on one of the bonus features that he insisted that Phoenix and Witherspoon cut a record together before they even did their first table reading for the film. "Ring of Fire" (nominated for a 1963 Grammy) is sung here, as well as "Folsom Prison Blues" and, of course, "I Walk the Line"--which ironically lost in the Grammys to Roger Miller's goofy "Dang Me." But Cash's own novelty song "A Boy Named Sue" is also missing, because it would have been tonally all wrong for this film as well as coming out of a period where Cash and Carter were happy together, finally, en route to 35 years of marriage--not bad, for a second and third marriage, respectively. This is the film that gets them to that point.
"Walk the Line" is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which is visually the same as 2.40:1. My colleague John J. Puccio, felt that the previously released transfer seemed uneven, and to my eyes that's still the case. This release has a new animated menu screen, but it doesn't appear that the film itself has been re-mastered. Sometimes the colors are a little brighter than at other times, while in some sequences there's more grain than in others. But in fairness, there's also a lot of stage lighting, and that always wreaks havoc with a cinematic image. Overall, I really have no complaints.
The English 5.1 DTS soundtrack is more consistently crisp and bold, and that's a relief. This is, after all, a musical biopic and the songs take center stage--literally. There's a rich full bass that showcases the famous Cash baritone as aped by Phoenix, and a nice balance between the dialogue and the music. There's not much in the way of effects, though, and so the rear speakers only come to life during the musical sequences.
Here's where most of the differences lie. But first, let's cover what's the same. Mangold's commentary track appears on both the previous release and this Extended Cut. Both have a feature on Folsom Prison and both include "Celebrating the Man in Black" (a making-of short feature) and "Ring of Fire: the Passion of Johnny Cash and June Carter."
As for differences, the previous releases had 10 deleted scenes, and we're down to "two more" on this one, for obvious reasons.
The two-disc Collector's Edition had three extended musical sequences (Phoenix on "Rock and Roll Ruby" and "Cocaine Blues," and Phoenix and Witherspoon together on "Jackson") whereas this new edition has those three PLUS Witherspoon on "Jukebox Blues," "Phoenix on "Get Rhythm," Waylon Payne (as Jerry Lee Lewis) on "Lewis Boogie," and Tyler Hilton (as Elvis) on "That's Alright Mama."
One of the best added features is "Sun Records: The Johnny Cash Sound," which gives a nice capsule summary of how important Sam Phillips was to the music industry and to the people he helped discover. It's not just a voiceover narrator and a still montage, either. There are talking heads, with Kris Kristofferson appearing and also Scotty Moore, Elvis's guitarist. Kristofferson reappears along with people like Willie Nelson, Kid Rock, Merle Haggard, and a few fellows from Rolling Stone to talk about "The Cash Legacy." And finally, there's another short feature on "Cash and his Faith" that's been added.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as John R. Cash, and "Walk the Line" is without a doubt one of the best musician biopics I've seen--though the formula peeks through like ribs on a dog. But Reese Witherspoon really takes her acting to another level with this film, bringing an electricity to the part of June Carter that really did merit an Academy Award. As for the editions, it's going to be a matter of choice. This Extended Cut has more bonus features and weaves eight of ten deleted scenes into the film. Some are going to want this new edition, while others (myself included) will be perfectly content to have the already-long theatrical version in the 2-Disc Collector's Edition.