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Monday, November 21, 2005

Walk The Line

I fell in to a burning ring of fire and found myself compelled to go the Essex Outlet Cinemas today to see the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. It was a relief to see the staff looking a bit more relaxed than they were yesterday when I came by with my husband, who wanted to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire like most everyone else in America, if not the world. Unfortunately, with Pottermania in full-swing, this great contender for the Oscars may be overlooked since it has the dubious distinction of going into wide release the same weekend as Harry and his friends.

I confess that my knowledge of Johnny Cash was limited to the fact that he wore black, sang country songs in a deep, almost gravelly, voice and was somehow connected to Folsom Prison. For all I knew he could have been an inmate. Needless to say, Walk The Line gave me a much more detailed education about the man, his music, and the love of his life, June Carter.

In an opening segment, we see young Johnny, called J.R., and his older brother Jack working in the cotton fields, listening to the radio, planning a fishing trip, and generally establishing the fact that they are inseparable friends as well as family. Johnny clearly looks at his brother with adoration as well as competition. He wants to be as strong, as good, and as smart as Jack, but his father (played Robert Patrick) in just a few words makes it clear that Johnny will always be second in his heart, if in it at all.

After his brother is gravely injured in an accident with a buzzsaw his father immediately blames Johnny because he was not with Jack. "Where were you? Where were you?" screams his father as he yanks the boy into his truck when he finds J.R. walking along the road. No sooner do they arrive home than Jack, while holding Johnny's hand, dies of his injuries. In the background the voice of the boys' father is heard wailing "He took the wrong son. Why did it have to be Jack?" And so sets the tone for how Johnny will feel about himself for the rest of his life.

Several scenes follow that skim quickly across what one must assume were the "normal" years of his life: his enlistment in the army and service in Germany as well as his (off-screen) first marriage. Suddenly he is settled down in Memphis, a door-to-door salesman who not-so-secretly yearns to be a singer despite the lack of support from his wife Vivian, played with alternative bouts of shrewishness and selfishness mixed with healthy doses of jealousy and bitchiness by the peculiarly monikered Ginnifer Goodwin.

Despite Vivian's desire to have Johnny move back to Arkansas to be near her Daddy he and his two back-up players do manage to cut a record and are quickly on their way to fame playing the country music circuit where Johnny becomes friends and collegues with such other (then) unknowns as Elvis Presley, played convincingly by "One Tree Hill" alum Tyler Hilton (thankfully no relation to Paris), Jerry Lee Lewis (well done indeed by Waylon Payne), and Shooter Jennings (as his real life father Waylon Jennings). Of course, the real star of the circuit is the child star now grown up, June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon. June has been in show business all her life, and, like Johnny, sees herself as second best. She has developed a persona on-stage as the funny girl because she has no confidence in her singing as well as her older sister Anita, a part of their family act Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

What follows is an interesting story about friendship as much as about love. The relationship between June and Johnny is based on an appreciation of their talent for one another and their recognition that they are better together on stage than apart, yet because both are married (well, at least initially) to others there is to be no hanky panky off stage. For today's audiences it may be hard to envision a world when only 40 years ago abstinence or even respect for the institiution of marriage meant what it did to these people. Not to say that they were saints. Eventually, Johnny and June do sleep together, but at a price of great shame and guilt that threatens to tear their friendship and professional partnership apart forever.

Meanwhile Johnny's rise to fame and fortune also brought with it an addiction to amphetamines, to which he was first introduced ironically enough by the young Elvis Presley as a way to keep up his energy while on tour. As the years go by so does the toll the drugs take on Johnny until he is eventually unable to perform, banned by the Grand Old Opry and scorned by public and family alike after being arrested in El Paso for buying drugs in Mexico.

These days a drug rap for a singer would be as innocuous as a parking ticket, but for Cash it spelled the end of his marriage (just as well considering Vivian's lack of interest in her husband other than as a way to get bigger and better homes, or so the movie would have you believe). It also meant bankruptcy and a long crawl back to legitimacy in the music business. It also meant facing his drug addiction in a time when there were no spa-like Promises Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers or Betty Ford Clinics. Instead, he had June Carter, one of his few remaining friends. Her compassionate nursing, comforting talk, and gentle guidance, along with Mother Maybelle's keeping Johnny's drug pusher at bay with the help of a double gauge shotgun, were what pulled Johnny through.

The story itself does not end with a bang as it leaves the viewers simply at the moment when June, after literally years of resisting, finally tells Johnny she will marry him. Instead, Walk The Line is about the friendship between the two singers, about the melding of their talents, the strength it takes to overcome personal demons, and the power it takes to escape the chains imposed by others that can shape who we grow up to be.

Much has already been written in the press about Joaquin Phoenix's amazing transformation into Johnny Cash. In real life, he bears no resemblance to the singer either physically or vocally but here he manages without make-up tricks to embody Cash in his carriage, his facial expressions, and his voice in such a way that as the film goes along he seems to grow from unidentifiable farm boy into the very essence of the country legend. Witherspoon, however, is the real surprise to me. Perhaps it is her fluffy Legally Blonde image, but to see her on-stage, performing with confidence as if she was a life-long singer, dancer and comedienne, brought a whole new dimension to her as an actress and seemed to give the role more credibility because its' naturalness was all the more impressive. When it comes to Oscar time, I only hope she isn't overlooked by voters who see Walk The Line as the "Johnny Cash" movie and not the "Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash" movie.

You don't need to be a fan of country music to enjoy Walk The Line. I think anyone who enjoys a good story about growing up and growing beyond the boundries of one's parents' expectations can relate to this. The music is as rocking as it is country and it moves the plot along rapidly and with passion, so do yourself a favor and Walk The Line down to the Essex Outlet Cinemas to see some odds-on Academy Award nominee favorites.

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