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March 01, 2006

Walk the Line


James Mangold - 2005
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Conspicuous in his absence in Walk the Line is Bob Dylan. Dylan is mentioned once by Johnny Cash in a conversation with his father. Cash and June Carter sing "It Ain't Me, Babe" in a rousing duet. Later Cash is seen hanging photographs while "Highway 61 Revisited" blasts on the stereo. A final mention of Dylan by a record executive seems designed for the benefit of an audience totally unaware of the state of popular music in 1968. Not only was Johnny Cash aware the Dylan had "gone electric" but The Beatles and The Byrds were electric rock bands to begin with. One has to see No Direction Home, the recent Dylan documentary to get a clearer idea of Cash's relationship with Dylan. One depending on Walk the Line would be unaware that not only did Johnny Cash have his own weekly television show in 1969, but that Dylan made an extremely rare television appearance as Cash's first guest.

Maybe I'm being a nit-picker here. Most biographical films are known for their "truthiness" rather than absolute truthfulness. For me, Walk the Line hit several false notes, ranging from playing with the facts to questionable casting. I'm usually fairly good at recognizing imposters, yet it wasn't until I read the credits that I realized that the guy who looked like Buddy Holly was suppose to be Roy Orbison. Joaquin Phoenix somewhat looked like Cash, though it took about an hour before the singing voice became passable.

Even though she looks nothing like June Carter, Reese Witherspoon is the life of this party. Her singing voice is higher than Carter's but she tries to mimic Carter's inflections and growls. With her voice and chin, Witherspoon actually is a little closer to rockabilly party girl Wanda Jackson. When Witherspoon steps out to sing her first number as Carter, she brings the spark of life to the film. Based on Witherspoon's performance, as well as his success with the actress driven Girl, Interrupted, James Mangold might want to reconsider his strengths as a director.

The film opens with faux Ford images of poor white sharecroppers on the cotton field. Later, an unmoored camera follows Phoenix as he goes on a rampage in his dressing room, tearing out a sink and falling on the floor. Even disregarding the inconsistent visual style, Walk the Line feels less authentic than such films as Coal Miner's Daughter and the fictionalized Sweet Dreams, and is certainly less visually consistent. The high point for Walk the Line is hearing the real Johnny Cash and June Carter sing behind the final credits. The real story of Johnny Cash and June Carter is told through the singers' own songs.

Posted by peter at March 1, 2006 11:23 AM


Peter, I have been to and fro on seeing this one. One guy whose opinion I very much respect was blown away by it, but I don't think he grew up with Cash in the way I did. It does rather seem to me that many of those swooning over the film have a small or late-blooming acquaintance with the man's music. I just watched the San Quentin documentary not too long ago and again thought I was better off with that than the two leads, who really don't look a thing like Johnny or June. I am sure I'll see it eventually, I am sure there will be things I like, but I am also sure that much of what irritated you will also irritate me.

Posted by: Campaspe at March 5, 2006 07:53 PM