' ' Cinema Romantico: He Walked the Line

Monday, November 21, 2005

He Walked the Line

“Walk the Line” is one of the finest biopics I’ve ever seen, and the best time I’ve had at the movies this year. It succeeds so mightily by not doing what oh so many biopic films do – attempt to detail too much. People like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, on and on, have had so many things happen to them there is no way to fit them all into a two hour (or plus) movie and not have it feel crammed and disjointed. But rather than being a full-on biopic, “Walk the Line” chooses to be something else – a love story about Johnny Cash and June Carter.

I was reminded during the course of the film of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. Do you remember when Tom falls in love with Becky Thatcher moments after meeting her and asks her to marry him later that same day at lunch and, of course, is turned down? He basically goes berserk – sick with unrequited love. That’s the feeling I got while watching “Walk the Line”. The film also references the death of Johnny Cash’s younger brother and his rotten relationship with his father as reasons for his drug use and alcoholism but I read it as his muse driving him to the depths. Maybe it’s just because I’m an emotional person but I understand the muse. I understand how a woman you’ve only know for – oh, let’s say four hours – I can drive you so damn crazy. Therefore I fully bought into it his addictions and rooted for June to do what I already knew she had done for real – save his life.

They’re both married and it takes several years for the romance to blossom, but it’s quite clear June never leaves Johnny’s mind. We see his first wife at home who’s portrayed as a good person and who wants a normal life but does not fully understand his passion for music and why he needs to be on the road so much. Is there anything more frustrating to an artist than a person who just doesn’t “get it”? This film – this real-life story – is proof-positive that the first person you love or the first person you marry is not necessarily your one true love.

There’s a stage scene midway through in which Johnny and June are performing a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, exchanging knowing looks through the whole thing. And then the camera angle moves behind them and we get glimpses of Johnny’s wife watching them sing this together. Nothing is said – it’s all subtext – but it’s powerful, powerful film-making. It all comes together. I often talk of scenes that make me want to stand up in the theater and cheer. This scene is among them.

The film handles the obligatory biopic scenes – the spurned wife at home, the cruel father, the addiction scenes – as well as can be expected. The script is fairly straight-forward and conventional but the performances and the ability of the film to make you feel as if you’re right up there onstage with Johnny and June is what elevates it.

Joaquin Phoenix owns the screen as the Man in Black. I don’t know if I would have thought of him to play the part prior the movie being made but after seeing it there is not another actor alive who could do it so well. This will bring him an Oscar nomination and quite possibly a win. Reese Witherspoon is more than his equal – she is absolutely fabulous. She too will net an Oscar nod and I would not be one single bit surprised or disappointed if the envelope opened on Oscar night bears her name. She brings a perfect pitch to the role, commanding the stage when she’s on it and displaying vulnerability when she’s off it. I loved watching how she could so quickly transform from being nervous, angry, whatever to her onstage persona. Phoenix had a more fleshed out role to play but Witherspoon takes what could have been a caraciture and makes it real, knowing, and unique.

I recently read a biography of the great band Wilco and in it and they discuss front-man Jeff Tweedy’s first band Uncle Tupelo. Band member Jay Farrar once chewed Tweedy out for letting a backstage argument carry over onstage and scolded him by saying, “Never mess with the music.” June Carter never messed with the music. Johnny Cash did, and that’s when she got mad with him. Witness the scene in which Johnny and the rest of the “boys” are drunk in the afternoon before a show and June winds up flinging beer bottles at them in a rage. “I won’t walk the line for you!” she hollers at Johnny as she storms away. Moments of inspiration can come in weird and mysterious ways, can’t they?

Interestingly, a few hours before viewing the movie I read an editorial in Chicago Sun Times regarding the dwindling number of people attending movies. This writer argued it was because of left-wing politics. Whether or not I agree is not really the point. The point is that writer – and anyone else who feels movies are overrun with left-wing politics – probably aren’t going to see “Walk the Line” on the big screen. And that’s a shame. “Walk the Line” is here to remind us that cinema is alive and well.

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