With the release of “Logan” dominating last month’s box office, we take a retrospective adventure down memory lane, to review director James Mangold’s most critically acclaimed film to date; Walk The Line. In an era where many influential 20th century icons are entering the final chapters of their lives, diversity of modern cinema has proved to not only preserve their legacies with accuracy and respect, but ensured they are remembered forever. Since the millennial turn, biopics have become a staple in contemporary film with Ray (2004), The Pianist (2002), and more recently Stephen Hawking’s depiction in The Theory of Everything (2014) being considered instant classics. Walk The Line, which walks us through the early life of legendary country musician Johnny Cash, is certainly not an exception. However, twelve years have passed since its launch and approval, leading us to ponder: Has it successfully stood the test of time? Or is it in danger of being eclipsed by Mangold’s highly appraised Marvel flick?
Folsom Prison, California, 1968, sets the opening scene, where we find our protagonist backstage. Portrayed by the wonderful Joaquin Phoenix, Cash appears lost in his own thoughts and unfazed by the crowd’s rampant crescendo. Any initial doubts over the Gladiator star’s casting are immediately buried as his poignant facial expression sucks us straight into a childhood flashback. Known then as J.R, we follow the musician’s early struggles, with his brother’s death and an estranged father-son relationship not only setting up a promising underdog journey, but firmly placing us in the young Cash’s corner. Fast forward to 1952, J.R now enlisted in the US army and stationed in Germany wanders into a music store, eyeing up a particular item. Cut to the next scene, a guitar has been purchased and Johnny Cash is born.
Upon his release, lumbered with a sales job and far from fairy-tale marriage with first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), Johnny is desperately trying to burst onto the music scene in Memphis. Unable to afford rent and a child to provide for, Cash’s luck begins to change as he lands his band an audition with famous label owner and record producer, Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts).. Deeming their gospel style as non-marketable, Phillips is quick to dismiss the band until Joaquin Phoenix resurrects the young superstar by perfectly performing “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash’s very first song. One could be forgiven for assumptions that Mangold dubbed the scene, with Phoenix’s reportedly rigorous vocal training evident by his meticulous impersonations throughout the film.
The dead ringer performances aren’t limited to our protagonist, as Cash begins his road to stardom touring alongside household acts such as Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Pane), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and controversial love interest June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Reminiscent of his childhood idol as learned earlier in the film, an initially timid Cash becomes close with June, leading to a “will they or won’t they” sub plot. Despite Witherspoon gaining June Carter’s approval for the role, many eyebrows were raised over selection due to her filmography thus far consisting mainly of ill received romantic comedies. The critics were soon won over, with Witherspoon’s musical delivery and impressive handling of the characters complex personality, culminating in a deserved Academy Award for Best Actress. The Oscar winner has no difficulty showing her acting range, depicting both Carter’s free-spirit exterior and the vulnerability masked beneath, as the two leads begin to fall for one another. Set in a generation where any such relationship is tarnished by infidelity, you still find yourself inevitably rooting for the couple, paying true testament to Phoenix and Witherspoon’s chemistry.
However, this is a biopic and not a happily ever after piece of fiction. In the midst of all the outstanding music on display, T-Bone Burnett’s melancholic score is much underappreciated and somewhat unrecognisable, as he borrows familiar guitar chords from Cash’s songs and inserts them into the background of a darker second act. As June struggles to accept her feelings and insists their relationship is strictly platonic, Cash falls victim to the influence of his growing success by abusing drugs and alcohol, resulting in an on stage overdose. Whilst the latter is a fictional attempt by the writers to add more drama, the extent of Cash’s amphetamine abuse through Phoenix’s excellent facial slurs is very much real. June having left and the tour cancelled, The Man in Black descends further into addiction, leading to isolation and a high profile arrest in 1965. After agreeing to visit for thanksgiving, a loyal June witnesses Cash’s efforts to change and helps him go cold turkey (no pun intended). After an emotionally charged scene where Phoenix and Witherspoon arguably earned their nominations, Johnny opens his fan mail to find countless letters from felons across the country, who’ve seemingly identified with the country star’s new outlaw image.
Sober and back on track, Cash announces his prison comeback tour and we find ourselves returned to Phoenix’s gaze in the opening scene. Thanks to Mangold’s non-linear direction, we’re now fully aware and sympathetic of his thought process as he returns to his surroundings and delivers a lightning performance. The film ends in Ontario, Canada. After June reluctantly agrees to a duet, Johnny interrupts with a marriage proposal more romantic than all the Twilight movies combined. She accepts in front of a sell-out crowd as the bands backing beat heard in the opening scene leads us out in symmetric symphony, where the real Johnny Cash sings over the end credits.
Logan and Walk The Line belong to two completely different genres, yet are certainly comparable. From the use of Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” in the formers trailer to the frequent western nostalgia throughout the film itself, it’s clear that James Mangold is talented at merging modern cinema with country themes. In both films, Mangold is able to extract enough emotion so audiences remain empathised with the anti-hero protagonist, despite acts of drug abuse and violence. Both films were supplemented with incredible method acting, with Hugh Jackman transforming his body to play The Wolverine, and a host of actors in Walk The Line training their vocals in congruence to their respected characters. In the short term, there is a strong possibility that Logan will be regarded superior to Walk The Line, especially with comic book movies emerging as one of the generations most popular genres. However 12 years after release and nearly 50 years after true events, Cash’s music remains popular amongst every generation and therefore in my opinion holds the long-term edge.
Walk the Line: 4/5