(PG-13) 4 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) in 'Walk the Line'

In my fall 2004 review of the biography Ray, I wrote, "In less than a year, we lost Johnny Cash (Sep. 12, 2003) and Ray Charles (June 10, 2004), two towering figures of enormous talent who repeatedly redefined whole musical genres. Their songs became standards. Their music drew together people from wildly disparate social, economic and cultural backgrounds. A term like 'beloved entertainer' is insufficient for artists that cast such large shadows. As hokey as it may sound, they were giants, really."

Stylistically, Ray was a standard music biopic, but it was blessed with an amazing lead performance by Jamie Foxx, who masterfully conveyed the sense of Ray Charles without ever resorting to mimicry. Walk the Line, which covers the life of Johnny Cash up to his landmark 1968 performance at Folsom Prison, also fits the standard music biopic template, and it is similarly blessed with remarkably evocative performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.

The screenplay by Gill Dennis and James Mangold, based on two books by Cash, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography, as well as interviews with the couple up until their deaths in 2003, devotes considerable time to the slow building, often contentious romance between Cash and Carter. I wish there had been more focus on Cash's musical development, but I can't fault the love story.

It should be noted that not all members of the Carter/Cash clan are delighted with the movie. Cash's daughter Kathy is upset over the portrayal of her mother, Vivian Liberto Distin, Cash's first wife, stating, "My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career. That's not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home."

Kathy's half-brother, co-executive producer John Carter Cash, insists that the filmmakers did not intend to marginalize Distin, saying, "I'm compassionately understanding, [but] the point of the film is my parents' love affair."

Despite her complaints, Kathy praised the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, as will most everyone that sees the movie, I suspect. Witherspoon, in perhaps her best work to date, nails the role right off the bat. June Carter thought she was one of the least talented members of the revered musical Carter family. Believing herself to be a poor singer, she worked on drawing laughs with her bright, sassy style. June was an unassuming Christian, turning the other cheek even when some prig verbally attacked her in public because she and her first husband divorced, but she stands up for herself when it comes to men, including Johnny Cash.

As Johnny Cash, Joaquin Phoenix starts subtly, building the "Man in Black" persona gradually and with great care. Cash is a quiet man whose power emerges through his music. Young Cash (Ridge Canipe) lost his beloved older brother, Jack (Lucas Till), in a sawmill accident. Jack was going to be a preacher and shortly after the tragedy, the boys' nasty-righteous father (a very imposing Robert Patrick) announces that the devil "took the wrong son," setting in place a handy explanation for Cash's alcohol guzzling and pill gobbling later in the movie.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do all their own vocals and, however unlikely it may seem, they capture the essence of the singers without mimicry. Other musical figures of note make appearances, including Waylon Jennings (played by his son Shooter Jennings), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton).

Walk the Line boasts rock-solid direction by James Mangold, well-chosen music by T-Bone Burnett, an authentic look and a fine supporting cast, but it's the terrific performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that knock this one out of the park. Walk the Line is a big, juicy film that works as well as a love story as it does as a biography.

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