Even on the surface, Johnny Cash appears to be one of the most fascinating and complicated figures in the history of American music. But that's rarely apparent in the film that chronicles at least part of his life story, Walk the Line. Solid in almost every respect-acting, directing, cinematography-the film only occasionally soars in the way that it could or should.
The problem is that the story of the "Man in Black" is reduced to the same precipitous rise-and-fall story arc that defines nearly every rock 'n' roll biopic. Born dirt poor, the young Cash succeeds through a combination of skill and determination, then slides into the drug-induced excesses that life on the road allows, and is finally redeemed by the love of a woman. Anyone who saw last year's Ray knows that story all too well.
Walk the Line (rated PG-13 for some bad language, thematic material, and depiction of drug dependency) is framed by one of its most powerful scenes, Cash's 1968 jailhouse concert which resulted in the At Folsom Prison live album.
Cash's musical career didn't begin until his return from a stint with the Air Force in Germany. Back in the States, the newly married Cash (played by an impressive Joaquin Phoenix) lands a deal with Sun Records and begins touring with a remarkable group of rising stars, among them Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. Walk the Line cleverly allows these larger-than-life figures subtle entrances and exits.
Also along on the tour is June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), who immediately forms a complex and at times volatile bond with Cash. Their relationship becomes the film's center of gravity, at its best when both are on stage. It's here that the movie takes flight, with Mr. Phoenix and Ms. Witherspoon singing their own songs rather than lip-syncing. Ms. Witherspoon pulls off an especially convincing country twang.
In fact, Ms. Witherspoon stands out through most of the movie, subtly conveying a deep hurt and disappointment in both her own failed marriages and Cash's destructive ways. The film never digs that deep beneath Cash's snarl, though. Particularly weak is the role spiritual awakening played in Cash's recovery, his well-documented faith relegated to a brief shot of Cash and Carter walking into a church.