Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Other Movies


Walk the Line - Song of love: Review

It is difficult for cinema to portray someone living. It is even more difficult to weave a film around a celebrity who is dead. John Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (released in India in March 2006)tells the story of Johnny Cash, the iconic singer who mesmerised America with his haunting songs on love and disappointment, on tragedy and survival, leaving in the process an original trail for rock, folk and punk.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon
Mangold deals with this, and more, by bringing in another American singing star, June Carter, whose voice and wit floored Johnny, and drove him to such despair that he stopped loving himself. A turning point arrives in Johnny’s life when June tells him to start loving himself. He does, and after a decade of heart wrenching wooing – 10 years or so when the two, married to different people and living in very conservative times (in one scene, a fan says that she felt let down when June divorced her husband, and we wonder what America would have thought when she separated a second time), could talk to each other only on stage with thousands of people for company – June finally says yes to him during a feet thumping performance. Johnny interrupts this, asks her, perhaps for a millionth time, to marry him, and she smiles, “okay”.

At the end, we are told that the couple lived, sang, travelled and raised children till their death in 2003. Both died within a span of four months; June passed earlier.

“Walk the Line” is basically Johnny Cash’s story of struggle. He grew up in the Great Depression years in the countryside, losing his dear brother in a sawmill accident. His father grieves and wonders why God took away the good child, leaving behind Johnny whose passion for music is only shared by his mother. The movie is fairly anecdotal, and Johnny’s first marriage to Vivian finds a place, but it is his affair with June that fires our imagination and lights the screen.

Reese Witherspoon ( 2006 Oscar for Best Actress) as June appeals a tad better than Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny (nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, 2006). More than Johnny’s fight to rise, particularly during and after his addiction for alcohol and drugs, it is June’s dilemma as she battles with her conscience and fear of consequences that greatly illuminates the canvas. Mangold also divulges that it was June who wrote “The Ring of Fire”, whose “Love is a burning thing” captured the hearts of millions in the 1950s and the 1960s. One had always thought that it was Johnny who wrote this, but Mangold demolishes this in his biopic, although it is quite easy to miss this, given the economy of the narrative.

“Walk the Line’s” other actors, as for example Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Cash) and Robert Patrick (Ray Cash, Johnny’s father), do offer able support, but the work is single mindedly focused on Phoenix. It is, of course, quite another thing that Witherspoon with her twangy voice and modest lyrical movements steals the show.

“Walk the Line” calls for comparison with at least one earlier movie, “Ray”.It is based on the life of Charles Ray, who grew up, like Cash, in poverty. Both lost their brother in childhood. However, while Jamie Foxx sounds every note like Ray, Phoenix and Witherspoon do not quite sing like Johnny or June. Some authenticity is lost here, but Mangold’s aim was perhaps not that. What he strives for is to tell us a great love story, and the music, despite its ability to get us all engaged in a feet-tapping exercise, provides merely a backdrop to Johnny’s and June’s admiration and passion for each other.

(This review appeared in The Hindu dated March 24 2006)

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