(director/writer: James Mangold; screenwriters: Gill Dennis/based on the autobiography “Man in Black” of Johnny Cash; cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; editor: Michael McCusker; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash), Reese Witherspoon (June Carter), Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Loberto), Robert Patrick (Ray Cash), Dallas Roberts (Sam Phillips), Dan John Miller (Luther Perkins), Larry Bagby (Marshall Grant), Shelby Lynne (Carrie Cash), Tyler Hilton (Elvis Presley), Waylon Malloy Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis), Shooter Jennings (Waylon Jennings), Johnathan Rice (Roy Orbison), Lucas Till (Jack Cash), Sandra Ellis Lafferty (Maybelle Carter); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Cathy Konrad/James Keach; Fox 2000 Pictures; 2005)

“The likable star is painted in too simple a way to ever approach knowing his self-invented character.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billed as this year’s Ray, James Mangold’s (“Girl Interrupted”/”Identity”/”Cop Land”) sincere biopic of country music legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is a conventional glossy Hollywood type of film that tells its story through the music and by offering a laundry-list of details about the singer’s life, but never reaches any great heights or understanding of the complex man. Instead is mostly a tribute to the artist and is framed around his unswerving love for fellow country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and his longtime courting (13-years) of the reluctant lady. Cash’s failings are attributed to the trauma of his childhood upbringing.

It opens with Cash’s historic Folsom Prison live concert in 1968, and through an extended flashback touches on his harsh childhood memories such as working on the WPA agricultural cooperative in Dyess Colony, Arkansas, and a cold father (Robert Patrick) he never had a good relationship with and losing his best-friend older brother Jack to a circular-saw accident. At twenty joining the Air Force and marrying his hometown girl (Ginnifer Goodwin), settling down as a family man and when frustrated with finding a straight job auditioning for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) and being signed by him to Sun Records, and then finding immediate success when on tour with musical legends that includes Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne). On the tour Cash first meets the frisky Kewpie doll-like June Carter, the daughter of the renown Carter family, someone he listened to on the radio as a child when June was only ten and he was twelve. They have an affinity for each other but she refuses to fool around with the married man. Cash’s marriage sours as his homebody bourgeois wife turns over-the-top shrewish and does not share his love for the music business, and he feels more inspired being around June and getting drunk with the other musicians. The film also follows how Cash became a pill-popper in the 1960s, got busted, and overcame his drug habit.

The film takes a risk-free approach by highlighting Cash’s music through recreated performances (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do their own vocals), that gets the musical part right but is so vanilla that it leaves you without anything to think about or any way of reaching inside to Cash being Cash. The singer was hard to pin down as he was a blend of many things, from a man who dressed in black because he thought he was going to a funeral, a working-class hero, an avowed gospel loving Christian with firm religious convictions, a bleeding heart liberal friend of the jailbirds, and always a good ol’ boy. The likable star is painted in too simple a way to ever approach knowing his self-invented character—which leaves us only listening to the music and hearing nothing else that we didn’t already know.

Walk the Line

REVIEWED ON 11/21/2005 GRADE: B-