All entries for Sunday 12 March 2006

March 12, 2006

Walk the Line

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Walk the Line
5 out of 5 stars

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick.
Time: 136 mins
Twentieth Century Fox.

Described by his contempory, Bob Dylan, as someone who no one else can be, Johnny Cash is one of music's finest legends. Masterful lyrics, new chords and stage charisma are things which define Cash from other similiar musicians. So great is Cash's musical repertoire and so profound is his mark on history, that one would assume that any attempt to try and imitate him would be a disaster.

Despite past films trying to imitate legends to a horrific effect, Mangold's film skirts many of the usual dangers film producers have to dodge when making a film about a legend. Like Ray (2005), the film choses a traditional path to tread, centering on Cash's emotional twists and turns and the effect the music has on him and him on the music. Concentrating mainly on Cash's relationship with June Carter, the film establishes the enduring friendship between them and Johnny's constant hope for more.

The pair sing on tour together and it clear that they are soul mates, made for each other both on and off the stage. However, a sea of woe stands between them: June's divorce, June's new husband and Johnny's addiction to amphetamines. When June has had enough of drugs, the hardship and the social isolation, she leaves the tour – sending Johnyy into a downward spiral of depression, rage and financial problems. His first marriage to Vivian (a simple houswive with none of June's fire and energy but likeable) is in tatters, especially after it is clear that Johnny's romantic intentions lie elsewhere.

The backbone of the film and possible the most important aspect of the feature is the relationship between Cash and his father. His father held the unexpected and untimely death of Johnny's elder brother as Johnny's fault, initiating the guilt and pain Johnny feels about life and his family – something which is reflected in his music. The devil, his father scathes "took the wrong son." It is exactly this missing paternal link which Johnny finds so difficult to get over.

Perhaps the reason Walk the Line missed out at the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (Phoenix) is that the screenplay already existed in the form of Cash's life and imitation is arguably easier for an actor to achieve rather than building a character up from a script. True, Heath Ledger's performance as the ranch cowboy in Brokeback Mountain was nothing short of genius (purely as a performace and also that Ledger is so typecast as being rubbish that he had to work hard to break his mould) and Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance was Oscar worthy, granted. However, Joaquin Phoenix's performance cannot go without mention when discussing the greatest performances from actors 2005/2006.

Typecasted as an actor who is expressionless and perhaps a little camera shy (see The Village), Phoenix is mesmerising. There's a lot to say for an actor or actress who captivates an audience. This is exactly what Phoenix does. His imitation of Cash is incredible. His voice is deep, rustic and harsh. So great is Phoenix's depiction of Cash both on and off stage that one finds oneself believing to be watching Cash and not Phoenix. Phoenix's co-star and Oscar winner, Reese Witherspoon, delievers the performance of a lifetime, stepping away from her usual roles and delieveries and stepping into unfamiliar terrority, and achieving the greatest award. Her singing is sassy, she is funny, adoring and she portrays June's unwillingness to temper her passions and see Cash's self-destruction brilliantly.

Phoenix's performance is magnificant and should not be overshadowed by any other Oscar contender. The film is honest and sound, juxtaposing the musical success and downfall of one man. One could perhaps argue that the film choses to centre more on Cash's life than his music and does imply that Cash simply fell into his musical personality, rather than offering any scope for how his music was born. As a peice of cinema the film is stunning and a joy to watch whether one is a Cash fan or not. It's just as well Bob Dylan references were kept to a low and no Dylan cameos were made as this would have completed lowered the tone.

The accomplished vocal work of Phoenix and Witherspoon does not really get enough attention in the film. Their work is masterful. Phoenix's "on-stage" performances are just sensational. The acting is spot-on on all accounts and the general production is solid. Particular gems are the concert footage and the flashback's into Cash's earlier years. This insight into one of music's greatest legends is flawless and captivating and can watched repeatedly for many years to come.

Fantastic and highly recommended.

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