Someone watching Walk the Line, the immensely enjoyable 20th Century Fox movie about Johnny Cash, would gather the impression that Cash had something to do with music. Yes, we see him on stage frequently, and are treated to numerous song fragments. But music isn’t what the movie is about. Instead, it’s chiefly about his relationships with women–a first marriage troubled by his infidelity and addiction, a descent to the depths, a long yearning for another woman, and her eventual consent.
Joaquin Phoenix is more beautiful than Cash was, a bit elegant in his features, not as pocked and drawn. He’s also reflexively defensive, as if he expects any moment to be punched in the gut. So he doesn’t quite channel Johnny Cash, but the portrayal he renders is compelling.
Reese Witherspoon, portraying June Carter, takes the picture in a walk. Make that a strut, with a perky little kick at the end. And her time behind a microphone is well-spent. Whatever you might have thought Witherspoon’s singing voice would be like, you probably didn’t expect such expert classic-country pipes: loud, strong, with a tantalizing vibrato. Some reviewers are saying her performance has “Oscar” written all over it, but the role itself is probably not meaty enough for that. The film’s June Carter is talented, sturdy, and confident, but there’s little opportunity for self-reflection. Witherspoon nails the role, but it’s not one that provides much range.
The relationship between Carter and Cash, and between Cash and his first wife Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin), is thoroughly explored. But the role music played in Cash’s life, and the role he played in music, is left unexplored. Instead we get a conventional biopic, with color-by-number scenes.
Here’s where he flubs an audition, followed immediately by the news that his record is racing up the charts. Here’s where he encounters the heady mix of fame, fans, and booze, and succumbs. Here’s where he tells his wife, “I got you your dream house, what do you want from me?” and she says angrily, “I want you.” And here he is sweating out drug withdrawal–a process which, in the movies, consists mostly of sweat, since intestinal cramps, vomiting, and impotence aren’t so photogenic.
Walk the Line will inevitably be contrasted with last year’s Ray, which followed a similar storyline. Perhaps that bare outline is inevitable: The story of any famous person will begin with him being un-famous, and the next stop will consider how he withstands the sudden clobber of fame. A broken marriage and substance addiction are almost givens.
Yet you’d think there would be different ways to tell this story, different details to highlight. The montage of life on the road, clamoring fans, a brief strained visit home, and signing a contract at label headquarters, looks like the same one we’ve seen in every famous-singer film.
Ray had its own strengths and flaws, but one thing it did well was thoroughly explore the nature of Ray Charles’s musical genius. The neophyte viewer was led along from one stage of Charles’s work to another, seeing how influences result in fresh sounds, and how combining two genres could result in something entirely original, and why that new thing might inspire both enthusiasm and resistance.
But you wouldn’t know from Walk the Line what was distinctive about Cash’s sound, or whether it changed and evolved, or whether it influenced others. The most we can glean comes from the 20th Century Fox promotional materials: “He was a voice of rebellion that changed the face of rock and roll. An outlaw before today’s rebels were born.” These unsupported assertions could have been helpfully borne out on screen.
Is it correct to call him a “rebel,” really? We see him creating a distinctively personal country sound, but not one that others remark on as rebellious. And did he really “change…rock and roll”? In this film, it’s rather the reverse; he resisted rock and roll. In a scene in Columbia record label headquarters, a photo of Bob Dylan hangs on the wall over Cash’s shoulder. The execs tell him that times have changed and even Dylan has gone electric; why does he persist in an acoustic sound?
As far as being an “outlaw,” since this apparently doesn’t refer to his music, it must be a literal reference to his being arrested for buying illegal drugs in Tijuana. In the p.r. materials, apparently this is a good thing. In the movie, it doesn’t look like gobbling handfuls of pills worked out so great.
All this “He’s a rebel, folks!” enthusiasm points to the curious fact that the most socially powerful figure is that of the rebel. This begs the question: If he has all the power, who is he rebelling against? If vast audiences are cheering, if powerful media companies are providing big checks, what exactly is being challenged? It begins to look like the illusion from Oz. This could be a sticky plot problem, but it’s resolved in Walk the Line in the usual way, by setting up occasional stick figures to disapprove. A department-store employee, for example, coldly tells Carter that her famous singing parents are “good Christians” and that she’s surprised that they still speak to her after her divorce. “Divorce is an abomination,” she intones.
This is the kind of tin-ear dialogue that results when a disapprover, usually Christian, has to be dragged onstage in order to make the rebellion engine work. Such stereotypes have as much to do with real Christians as Stepin Fetchit had to do with the real condition of blacks in the 1930s. If not for these fabricated disapprovers, it would be embarrassingly obvious where real power lies. The wealthy and powerful “rebel” side is pulling all the strings, right down to inventing this character, and choosing the very words in her mouth.
The plot necessity of classing Christians as frowny-faces prevents the script from following a more interesting path. We see Cash at rock bottom, and see June leading him on a bright Sunday morning into a white clapboard First Baptist Church. After that, he starts to get his life together. The scene is whisked from the screen almost before it has time to register. Yet–is it possible there’s a connection there?
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.