Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Movie Review: Walk the Line

I'm not particularly a fan of country music, so I didn't know much about Johnny Cash before watching this movie. I knew he had problems with drugs and alcohol. I knew he sang Folsom Prison Blues. I knew he hung out with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings as part of a group called The Highwaymen and they all wore black. And I knew he was married to June Carter, whose family played a pretty important part in preserving folk songs from Appalachia.

So I was interested in learning more about Johnny Cash and where his music came from.

I was not disappointed.

Like Jamie Lee Foxx in Ray, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon channel Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The fact that they actually sang the songs and played guitar and autoharp made the difference--much of what Johnny and June were about was the music and if you don't sing it or play it, you can't feel it.

The movie is mostly about Johnny Cash--how his father's drinking affected the family, how he learned to sing from his mother's hymnal of gospel songs, how his brother's death impacted his relationship with his father. After the death of his brother, Jack, Johnny (known as JR), retreated into himself. To get away from his father and the Arkansas cotton farm where he was raised, Johnny joins the Air Force and is stationed in Germany. He's able to buy a guitar and write his first songs, but he also marries Vivian, a girl from back home he had just started dating before he left. He tells her he wants to wake up and see her face every morning--but it's not love. It's loneliness. And that loneliness dogs him for years, despite marriage, three daughters, and a successful career.

The only thing that makes the loneliness leave, the only time Johnny is at peace, is when he's playing his guitar and singing.

Vivian doesn't understand that music is Johnny's true first love. She wants him to settle down, take a job with her father's company so they can lead a "normal" life. Instead, Johnny talks his way into an audition. He's signed--and thus begins the definitely not-normal life of a touring musician. Johnny and the boys play small venues all over the South, traveling by car, staying in cheap motels. Their companions are Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and they are redefining music, although no one quite knows it.

Also touring with them is June Carter, who has been performing since she was girl. Johnny has had a crush on her since he listened to her sing with her family on the radio and it's kind of sweet how he's all shy and bashful when he first meets her.

But touring takes its toll on Johnny and Vivian. Johnny becomes addicted to amphetamines to give him the energy to carry him through yet another show, followed by alcohol to bring him down after. He is able to buy Vivian a nice house, a nice car, nice clothes, but he's seldom home. And when he is, he is thinking about the tour and the music. Vivian sets up a new rule: no talk of the tour when he's at home. But Johnny feels that his life is completely bound by rules and schedules. He rebels by touring longer, drinking more, taking more drugs, looking for comfort in the arms of the young female fans who offer themselves to him after the concerts.

The one stable person in his life is June Carter. But she has problems of her own as well. Her first and second marriages have ended in divorce and she has two young girls of her own to care for. She doesn't have the time--or, she thinks, the strength--to cope with Johnny's emotional demands. Johnny persuades her to tour with him and Vivian realizes she has yet another rival for Johnny's affections.

Johnny finally does hit bottom and June is there to bring him out. She believes him to be a good man and that he has worth as well as music. And from there, it's the story of how he persuades her to marry him.

The more I see of Joaquin Phoenix, the more impressed I am with his acting talent (and now his singing!). Reese Witherspoon plays airhead and strong, competent women equally well--useful since part of June Carter's role was to be the "funny one" in her family's act.

Good people often do stupid things. But we can be redeemed.

This movie is rated PG-13. And I'd let DD#2 watch it but probably not in the theater. At home with Hubs or I in the room, probably. There are some challenging issues: drug addiction, infidelity, child neglect, a couple of emotional screaming matches. How much of the darker side of life does a young teen really need to see or to learn about?

Walk the Line does a terrific job capturing the era as well as Johnny Cash and June Carter. I'm going to miss their music.

On the March Hare scale: 4.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.