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Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic is money

Graham Ebetsch | Wednesday, November 30, 2005

With the recent rise in biography films, this holiday’s “Walk the Line” has some hard acts to follow. But the cast of James Mangold’s story of country music legend Johnny Cash has risen to the occasion and proved itself to be as good, if not better, than similar musical biopics.

“Walk the Line” stands in a different class entirely, telling an honest tale of a troubled musician, leaving out the typical Hollywood bells and whistles.

Though the opening shots are of the infamous Folsom Prison concert, the actual plot begins with Cash’s upbringing in Arkansas. At a young age, Johnny, or J.R. as his family called him, loses his older brother Jack. As if such an event weren’t traumatizing enough, JR’s father, a heavy drinker and harsh man, tells the young boy that God “took the wrong son.”

Cash’s father continues throughout the movie as the token parental antagonist whose son’s achievements will never meets his expectations. While the basic character is a common one in writing, actor Robert Patrick does a fantastic job in not over-acting the role. After some slow plot progression of Cash’s marriage and rise into fame, the story takes off into the main focus of the movie.

The cat and mouse game between Cash and his country music predecessor, June Carter, inspire the most touching scenes. Every event depicted in the film after their first interaction reflects Johnny’s obvious desire to be with her, a desire which eventually ends his marriage to Vivian, isolating him from his two daughters. The movie does not drag on through the death of Cash in 2003. Instead, it concludes with a resolution between June and Johnny.

Inevitably, “Walk the Line” will be compared to last year’s stand-out picture, “Ray.” While they both incorporate the same basic musician biopic formula of a hard childhood, overcoming obstacles, failed romantic relationships and the eventual substance dependency, the similarities end there.

To compare the performances by the two leading men would be an injustice. In portraying an iconic celebrity, an actor is confronted with the difficult line between becoming the individual and being able to doing great impersonation. While Joaquin’s speaking voice isn’t dead on, the mannerisms, personality and singing voice he picked up from years of studying Cash make for an excellent performance.

Jamie Foxx, a trained comedian, seems to be more focused on making the most spot-on imitation with the very familiar traits of Ray Charles. “Ray” seems to use the standard Hollywood template for an individual beating adversities and succeeding. But “Walk the Line” is instead a gripping story of Cash made by people who genuinely want the story to be told.

It is quite refreshing to see Joaquin Phoenix in a role not written by M. Night Shyamalan. Phoenix shows his strength in dramatic acting giving an eerie glimpse in the mind of Cash, especially since Phoenix himself lost his own brother River to a drug addiction. Any Oscar-buzz for this role is well deserved.

But Reese Witherspoon has the stand out role of the movie and of her career – as June Carter, Witherspoon has finally decided to fly her acting flag. This role might seem like a stretch for the actress who is two-deep in the “Legally Blonde” franchise, but she tackles it head-on. Witherspoon captures both the witty performer and the southern girl longing for real love beautifully. Hopefully this will be the gateway to better roles for the talented actress – then again, Jamie Foxx did go on to star in “Stealth.”

Every aspect of “Walk the Line” proves it is the most devoted biopic in recent years. Johnny Cash fans will have all of their expectations fulfilled, and non-fans can’t help but be sucked in by the performances, the music and the direction. Though 2005 has been a slow year in movies, “Walk the Line” is easily the best yet.