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Friday, Feb. 17, 2006

A ray of love for Johnny Cash

Walk the Line

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: James Mangold
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 18
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"You've seen 'Ray,' right? Well, it's the same movie, but a different soundtrack" was how a fellow film critic of this paper regarded the Johnny Cash bio-pic "Walk the Line." There's a lot of truth in what he said, especially since the pace and time structure of both movies are strikingly similar, in this one the musician's life is packed in from when he was about 10-years-old to his enormous success and accompanying drug addiction/rehabilitation in his late 30s.

News photo
Joaquin Phoenix in "Walk the Line"

And the list of parallels between the two films doesn't end there: both Cash and Ray Charles lost a brother in a childhood accident; both came from poor Southern backgrounds (in Cash's case he picked cotton on a dirt farm in Arkansas); and both left deep, giant footsteps in the terrain of the much-trampled American music scene. Oh, and, by the way, both movies show the actors (Jamie Foxx as Charles and Joaquin Phoenix as Cash) sitting around a lot in white tank tops -- brooding and chain smoking. Even the camera takes the same kind of angle on their faces, which leads one to think that a combination of nicotine, music and white tank tops should be patented by the troubled-musical genius genre (see also "Bird," "Round Midnight" et al.)

Having said that, "Walk the Line" has something "Ray" doesn't: a sincere, slow-burning love story. While "Ray" drew Ray Charles as a mild predator who put his music first and women several notches below (he wasn't abusive or mean about it, that's just the way he was), "Walk the Line" pays as much attention to Cash's longtime relationship with fellow country singer June Carter as it does to the man and his music.

While there is, of course, a certain risk in dwelling on the personal aspects of an artist's life -- after all, the art is the both their raison d'e^tre and excuse -- "Walk the Line" does it much better than others ("Beyond the Sea," "Frida" and "Pinero," for example). This is largely thanks to the personality and charm of Cash's love object, June, played with virtuoso skill and sympathy by Reese Witherspoon.

In one scene Johnny turns to June and says with blunt simplicity, "I just can't live without you, June" and that may as well have come from the movie itself. For without June the picture would be as flat as an Arkansas mud pond on an August afternoon; most of its soul, sass and bravura come from June. Cash waited 14 long years between the time he met her in 1954, to their marriage in '68. According to this movie (but by other accounts as well) she was worth every minute of it.

Carter was country-music royalty long before Cash penned his first song. As a sibling born into the legendary Carter Family, she was singing and dancing on stage as soon as she could walk. When 10-year-old John Cash would listen to her on the radio, his cold, drunken father (Robert Patrick) would suddenly stride into the room and turn it off. Later, when Cash was in the army and stationed in Germany, he would learn of June's marriage to country singer Carl Smith and be prompted to propose too, over trans-Atlantic cable to his teenage girlfriend Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), whom he hadn't seen in two years. (She said yes.)

In Tennessee, Cash made his debut as the leader of a rinky gospel band, but quickly ascended to country music stardom alongside musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and the young Elvis Presley. One night backstage, he meets June for the first time, and the two are conscious of a connection, though both being married, propriety overrides their emotions. Over the years, however, Cash can't get over his inner yearning for June while he goes onto make gold records, dallies with one groupie after another, buys bigger and more luxurious houses. His marriage to Vivian gets stuck in a rut of recriminations and discontent as he himself is swallowed up by a drug habit that, at one point, gets him arrested.

When he screws up the courage to visit June's parents' house in Nashville (where she had been living since her second divorce), Cash is a lonely, dissipated wreck pleading for June's attention. She sends him packing, but eventually nurses him through rehab and joins his tour as a fellow singer. When Cash asks her why she would do this for him, she answers him with that sweet, lilting Southern accent, "Becuz you're mah friend."

In "Ray," the soundtrack used Ray Charles' own voice while Jamie Foxx lip-synced the words; "Walk the Line" has Phoenix and Witherspoon perform all the songs themselves. Many U.S. critics have compared them unfavorably to the real thing, but director James Mangold was probably not looking to re-enact musical genius. The point of "Walk the Line" is the Johnny-June relationship, a large part of which flowered on-stage as they played duets.

Musical value aside, the chemistry between the characters is red-hot real, and sizzling with emotion -- their voices soaring with the sheer joy of being together.

As Cash once sang: "Strong enough to rule every man, this thing called love."

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