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Growing up in a
cotton-picking family in Depression-era rural Arkansas, country music
legend Johnny Cash had a tough childhood. His best friend and older
brother Jack was always considered the "good" one, Johnny the
troublemaker who spent too much time with his head in the clouds,
listening to his favorite singers on the radio. When Jack died in a
horrible accident while cutting up some wood for extra cash, their
hard-case alcoholic dad blamed young Johnny, who'd skipped out on the
work to go fishing. The relationship never recovered, and by the time
Johnny left home for the army, heading off to the war in Europe seemed
like a welcome escape. In the army, Johnny felt as alone as ever. But
it was during this time that he bought his first guitar. Returning home,
Johnny tried to settle back into regular life, marrying his sweetheart
Vivian and taking a job as a door-to-door salesman. But neither family
life nor a (rather pathetic) sales career could draw him in like music
could. Together with his band -- "two mechanics who can hardly
play", as Vivian complains at one point -- he managed to talk his
way into an audition with Memphis's Sun Records. Producer Sam Philips
hated their first song, a generic gospel-inspired bit, but gave Cash
one more chance -- to play something he really meant. Cash played
"Folsom Prison Blues", a song he penned while in Germany. His
bandmates had never heard the tune before; they made up their parts as
they went along. But "Folsom Prison Blues" won Philips over,
and Cash cut his first record. Success soon followed, as Cash began
touring the country with the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis -- and
more pivotally, pretty, sassy young June Carter, a former child star
whom Cash had grown up listening to. The connection was immediate, but
Cash was married and Carter had just gone through a scandalous divorce.
In the long years that followed, Cash pursued Carter in between stage
shows while she continued to hold him at arm's length -- reluctant to
commit because of his marriage first, then later, his drug addiction.
But on stage in their duets, the two played out their flirtation,
falling in love in front of the audience. As Johnny grew ever more
self-destructive, it became increasingly clear: Cash's soul might have
been music, but it would take Carter to save it.
know it's all cool to like Johnny Cash these days, but I have to admit,
country music's never done it for me. So I don't care how legendary the
Folsom Prison album is supposed to be: I don't love listening to it, no
matter how often the boy insists on playing it, convinced that with
enough listenings I'll come around. So it's a real testament to what a
satisfying musical biopic Walk the Line is that, despite myself, I
occasionally found myself kinda sorta fighting the urge to sing along.
James Mangold's much-acclaimed film is, in many ways, a pretty standard
rags-to-riches musician's story: Small-town boy makes good, then
temporarily loses his way in the face of a sudden abundance of fame and
fortune, drugs and loose women, hits rock bottom, but eventually finds
redemption, becoming the stuff of musical legend. Truth be told, there's
nothing all that amazing about that aspect of the Johnny Cash history.
No, what sucked me into this story wasn't the music, or even the man,
but watching Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon duetting as Cash and
Carter, depicting what must surely be one of the most romantic real-life
love stories ever. Both actors are remarkable: Phoenix gets the
volatility and the vulnerability and the charisma of Cash just right,
while Witherspoon just seems born to play the feisty, funny,
strong-willed June. But most of all, their chemistry? It's so
palpable you can feel it in your stomach; it makes you dizzy; you forget
to breathe. I'm still no fan of Cash's country stylings, but for the
130-plus minutes of Walk the Line's rather lengthy running time, I have
to admit: Phoenix and Witherspoon made me feel the depth and longing
that lurk beneath that simple 2/4 country beat, and my foot started
tapping along. —reviewed
by Yee-Fan Sun
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