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Thread: Walk the Line (2005) - James Mangold

  1. #1
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    Walk the Line (2005) - James Mangold

    Well another biopic is upon us. Last year we had Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx, this year it's Johnny Cash and Joaquin Phoenix. Both are well known musical legends, both started around the same time, both had problems with drugs, both eventually recorded country music, and both eventually cleaned themselves up. Walk the Line is Cash's life from the death of his older brother to his 1968 proposal to June Carter, the love of his life, played here by Reese Witherspoon.

    Well until Capote I never really realized that a biopic is a genre. Much like musicals or westerns would have dominated previous years, lately it seems like no Oscar season is complete without a few of these films up for contention. Joaquin is certainly going to be a contender for best actor, people love an actor who can play a singer and do his own singing, although who can't sing like Johnny Cash? The real shining star of the film though is Witherspoon, who has arguably never been better, although Election is a possible exception, despite being very far from it. She too does her own singing, and June Carter had a slightly better voice than Cash. You also have to look at the fact that Joaquin is a farely well respected actor. He has proven himself very capable, and even received an Oscar nomination before (supporting for Gladiator). Witherspoon on the other hand has not had a very easy time gaining the type of recognition as an actress, somehow two Legally Blonde movies seem to put off a lot of Academy voters.

    Here though she has arguably never been more beautiful (sporting a brunette mop), and certainly has never been so convincingly dramatic. Despite June Carter's reputation as a funny singer, Witherspoon doesn't play her as a comic, which could be easy because Witherspoon has certainly been funny before. She doesn't just play the supporting woman for the big man either. Her role is powerful, and since it was based off of Cash's own autobiographies, you can tell whatever he wrote about June was filled with pure love.

    The dialogue in the film works wonderfully, especially between those two. Johnny doesn't always have the right things to say, and Witherspoon's dialogue isn't just believable, it is full of phrases and answers that I've heard myself. That right there are the films two strongest points. Great dialogue, and great acting.

    What makes the film fall a notch is it's predictability. Capote steered clear of many biopic cliches and in the process succeeded in ways that Walk the Line doesn't. The disapproving father (Robert Patrick), the success montage, the drug addiction, the hard life on the road, it's all formulaic. It's as if someone was saying "A movie about Johnny Cash would be perfect", just like any movie about any early rock and roll legend would be. Substitute Cash for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, or Roy Orbisson and you'd have virtually the same movie. There are big chunks of Cash's life left out, but well the movie is certainly long enough as is. The pacing is off. This is a 140 minute movie that feels like it's three hours, it drags. The best of these films should fly by, but I never get a feeling like I'm finding anything new here, either about Cash, who's life was a cliche, or about the genre.

    Just to be on the up and up, it would be advisable to see the film. Lots of people were in attendance, even though Harry Potter was playing in the next theater, and lots of people are going to be talking about it. I hope that the most attention goes to Reese Witherspoon, but most likely we'll hear about the work of Phoenix here.

    Grade B -
    Last edited by wpqx; 11-22-2005 at 11:12 AM.

  2. #2
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    Choppy and Uneven but Powerful

    After being forced to go see this movie, I believe that wpqx has it pretty well sized up. There were some good scenes, great singing and entertaining, but I've seen most of this stuff before and thus the presentation was the key. Yet the movie failed to live up to its potential, Reese Witherspoon notwithstanding. She could have been even better, possible great, if she had the larger role and script to go with it. I won't go into detail, but the movie was good, but not great. It had poor editing and uneven pacing especially in the first half, until the spotty scenes begin to flow better together and the actors begin to relate more on screen.
    Even then, the movie just seemed to leave out the intimate, connection...the real story of Johnny Cash...it seemed sanitized a bit (which is understandable). I was hoping perhaps for a Passion of the Christ approach.

  3. #3
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    WALK THE LINE

    Good solid stuff, have yourself a cry


    by Chris Knipp

    [For the flavor of the man and his art, go here: http://www.johnnycash.com/]

    Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
    And tell the world that everything's OK,
    But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
    'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
    (The Man in Black)


    Johnny Cash. What a man, what a legend, what a voice! Who could fill his shoes? Who could sing his songs? Joaquin Phoenix gives it a good try. He's got qualifications not too many actors today have got. He looks like the young Cash, and he's paid some of the same dues. He too grew up in poverty singing on the street to earn his supper. He too lost too young his golden brother, like Cash, but to the drugs that brought Cash down and sent him to jail. And of course he can sing. Like Reese Witherspoon as performing partner and ultimate life partner June Carter, he's capable of singing all his own songs, and he does as she does. Now, nobody but Cash could write those songs and those lyrics. Phoenix has the conviction and passion when he delivers them, but you can't fake the performing style of a man who's spent thousands of hours on the road. And of course you can't fake that sad deep nasal voice. But Phoenix has a sadness about him, even the air of a loser, one who has suffered and struggles on, and that's the essential Johnny Cash.

    Walk the Line, like most biopics, is conventional. It goes through the paces and passes the essential rubrics, the childhood traumas, the big chance, the sidetracks, the hazards of life on the road, the disintegrating marriage, the substance abuse, the humiliations and the fame that comes anyway. There's the tragic death of the brother, the rejection of the father, the pill problem, the wife problem, the road, the jail time, the prison concerts, the bottom, then the proposal to June, and her acceptance. For all that, like many biopics of the musical kind, it's only a piece of the life. You just have to hope it's a good solid piece sliced out of the middle of the pie. It ends around 1968, when he married June Carter. He had another thirty-five years of life to go. Probably Cash's substance problem at its worse went beyond beer and pills, but that's all we see.

    Highlights of the film: When Cash in audition for Sun Records drops his tepid gospel songs and galvanizes the room with songs he wrote himself in the Air Force; when he performs the first time in a California prison. When he proposes to June Carter onstage and she reluctantly, finally agrees. Cash crashing a big expensive tractor into a creek and June going down to pull him out. And any song, sung with the guitar held high like a shotgun.

    This is a solid music flick. One song comes after another. It's a conventional movie, but it has emotional resonance and strength. We see the houses get bigger, but the film goes only a slight sense what an enormous success Cash was -- as many hit singles as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, more than Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson (including his Jackson 5 hits), the Four Seasons, David Bowie, the Supremes, Elton John, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, the combined totals of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel, Martin Gaye, B.B. KingÖ.the list goes on. In 1969 he was outselling the Beatles. If they were more famous than God, Johnny was God.

    I hear the train a comin'
    it's rolling round the bend
    and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
    I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on
    but that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Anton..
    When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
    always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
    But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
    now every time I hear that whistle I hang my head and cry. . .
    I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
    they're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
    Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
    but those people keep a movin'
    and that's what tortures me...

    Well if they'd free me from this prison,
    if that railroad train was mine
    I bet I'd move just a little further down the line
    far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
    and I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.....
    (Folsom Prison Blues)


    If you listen to the songs of Johnny Cash himself you will probably know all you ever need to know about the man and the world he encompasses like nobody else. He's a storyteller, and he speaks between the lines too. Incidentally, he's a hell of a writer of lyrics. He gives Bob Dylan a run for his money. No wonder they got together on Nashville Skyline. (He and June had already covered several Dylan songs years before with great success.) Walk the Line is reverent and heartfelt but only begins to detail the scope of this remarkable, hugely influential singer-songwriter and cultural figure.

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    Similar Lines

    I find it quite peculiar that biopics about musicians all seem to contain variations on the same plot points. Musicians have troubled childhoods, often including traumatic experiences and/or stern upbringings that will likely cross the line into abusive. Musicians get married and then inevitably neglect their spouses and cheat on them with groupies post getting discovered and making something of a name for themselves. And it wouldnít be a movie about a successful musician if said musician didnít get into a full-on battle with drugs and alcohol. I can accept that these issues might be typical of a musicianís influential background and the industry that exploits their talents by running them around the world, away from their family. What gets me is that these stories arenít stories at all but real lives. There are probably more people out there going through exactly what you are and you donít even know it. The similarities may be seemingly unavoidable but the film must differentiate itself to make itís own name. The emphasis must then be placed on two things Ö the performances of the lead actors and of course, the music. In the case of Johnny Cash biopic, ďWalk the Line,Ē director James Mangold takes it one step further and crafts a destiny driven love story, set against the backdrop of the familiar rise and fall of a rock star.

    The larger force at work gets started early for Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) as Johnny becomes enamored with June upon hearing her sing on the radio when he is just a boy. His discovery is innocent but the influence will be lasting as the sound of her voice inspires desire inside of him to have the same opportunities and the calm that her voice brings to his impoverished and troubled childhood will be something he searches for for decades to come. When the two finally do meet, the calm returns to him immediately and their chemistry is unmistakably natural. As they sneak glances when the other isnít looking, they look affected without understanding why. The insight comes the first time the two take the stage together. They speak a language that no one else can discern only the language isnít spoken, itís sung.

    Watching two people fall in love on stage and through song while one or the other alternates fighting against it energizes the performances. Their infatuation and excitement invigorates their voices and faces, inspiring anticipation in both the onscreen audiences and those in the multiplexes as we anxiously watch to see where this will lead. Having Phoenix and Witherspoon sing their own parts only deepens the performancesí authenticity. It removes the detachment from the character one would ordinarily experience while watching with the constant awareness of that voice not being from that body. It doesnít hurt that they both sound fantastic too.

    As June, Witherspoonís exuberance is infectious. She demonstrates a strength in vulnerable times that is usually masked by a giant smile. Phoenix plays Johnny as a naÔve genius, unaware of how his decisions affect those around him. He very rarely looks determined or calculated; instead he is impulsive and organic. And certainly he can brood with the best. Together, their connection is palpable. Amidst drug detox, ballooning egos and the collapse of marriages, the pull between them remains intact and retains its hold on their hearts. The happiness they could have and both deserve is always just out of reach and you will want so much for them to have it that you will not want the credits to roll. And though you may wish they could keep on singing for you, it is still a relief that they can finally drop the act.
    Last edited by mouton; 12-07-2005 at 09:57 AM.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
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  5. #5
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    Originally posted by mouton
    James Mangold takes it one step further and crafts a destiny driven love story, set against the backdrop of the familiar rise and fall of a rock star.

    Walk the Line is still a biopic, reverent to the conventions of the genre, including the necessary gaps and omissions. But like you stated, it is a love story to a similar extent. That is what distinguishes it from other recent music biopics. For instance, I came away with the impression that the rationale behind every pill-popping and drinking scene is the distance it creates between the couple, more so than childhood trauma or road burn-out. The love story works very well in large part because of the performances, and the chemistry between Mr. Phoenix and Miss Witherspoon.

    I don't know if you're calling Cash a "rock star" or if you just mean Cash's life during the period covered in the film is similar to that of a rock star. Johnny Cash was both a country icon and a folkie with a populist bent_he was perhaps as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie ("I wear the black for the poor and beaten down"). He was associated with rock 'n roll, or more specifically rockabilly, when he recorded with Sun Records (from 1955 to 1958). But his music was mainly a fusion of country and folk idioms. He was a minimalist with regards to instrumental accompaniment to his deep, melodically-limited baritone. Speaking as someone who's quite familiar with his instrument, I wish it was Cash's voice we heard in this movie. Like Chris states, you can't fake that voice. Would Phoenix perf have suffered if he wasn't actually singing? I don't know, but it didn't stop Jamie Foxx from getting an Oscar last year.

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    he was perhaps as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie
    Maybe, but he was not as political.
    I don't know if you're calling Cash a "rock star" or if you just mean Cash's life during the period covered in the film is similar to that of a rock star.
    One thing that struck me was how close to Elvis he was starting out, in physical proximity recording in the same studio, and it seemed like the genre lines were not as sharply drawn then as they are now. And since Cash was in a seense not that "musical" -- you mention, Oscar, his "minimalist" settings and limited baritone -- that, to me, puts him closer to a rock star and further from a good musiician. But let's not forget about the quality of the lyrics of Cash's song's. LIke Dylan, he's a vernacular poet with very evocative lines.

    Oscar, you have a point about Jamie Foxx winining an Oscar wihout actually singing, it was an act of pure physical mimicry and dramatic acting, but a lot of people like the fact that both Joaquin Phonix and Ms. Witherspoon do their own singing; they feel it lends authenticity to the performance. I do too.

  7. #7
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    a shitkickin' slice of Americana

    Wow.

    Why did I wait so long to see this?
    I had 3 Faxe beers and took hits from the bong before heading over to a nearly empty theatre on Granville.
    The ads before the show were vomit-inducing.
    That new Anniston-Vaughn film (comedy?) is the absolute NADIR of cinema today. I wanted to puke, and it wasn't because of the beer. Man, does that show look sucktastic..
    I was debating seeing Kong again but I opted to see something I hadn't yet.

    Walk the Line has some incredible scenes.
    You can almost smell the bryl-creem and whiskey breath.

    What I liked the most is that I felt as if I was actually seeing the history of June & Johnny.
    This film is as much about the man in black as it is about his wife. They were two of a kind, two legends who gave each other support and hell.
    (Johnny giving more hell than she)
    Reese Witherspoon was a joy to watch.
    Her singing and acting is damn fine.
    Wildwood Flower?
    She could cut a country record tomorrow and it would sell. no shit. Baby Baby Baby

    My favorite scene in the whole movie is the one in the recording studio with the producer who tells Johnny and his band that he doesn't make records that don't sell.
    Johnny proceeds to lay down an impromptu demo of Folsom Prison.

    That's the stuff great movies are made..

    Just about all of the live performances are top-notch. After all it's the music of Johnny Cash that is so important. The Folsom prison scene where he smashes a glass of the house water was the kind of scene I was hoping for from a Johnny cash biopic. I think he would love it if were still around to see it.
    Joaquin Phoenix IS Johnny Cash. Sure, he doesn't look EXACTLY like him, but who gives a fuck? He nailed the spirit of the man. He got all the grace notes down pat: how he slung his guitar, how he sung into a mic, how he talked- Joaquin must have studied Mr. Cash's mannerisms- that stuff isn't just "acted"- you gotta know what the fuck you're doing, especially when you're playing a legend such as Cash. And not just because of the fans who will get on your case- this is your career too.

    God bless ya Joaquin: you made me a believer.

    The cars are all vintage, the clothes are all vintage, the musical instruments and stage set-ups are all vintage. VINTAGE MOVIE, folks!
    James Mangold has struck gold, and that's hard to do with biopics- so many ways to fuck it up.
    The whole movie is one big grace note.
    Loved it.

    I'm still thinking about it, and that's what the best movies do: leave you with crater-like impressions.
    Last edited by Johann; 10-18-2011 at 11:22 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    My favorite scene in the whole movie is the one in the recording studio with the producer who tells Johnny and his band that he doesn't make records that don't sell.
    Johnny proceeds to lay down an impromptu demo of Folsom Prison.
    That is certainly true, and reminds me that I ought to have mentioned Hustle and Flow, where the making a record sequence really comes to life. And Terence Howard gives such a rounded performance, so appealing. I can never remember all the good stuff I want to mention. Walk the Line could be in a Ten Best US 2005 list but I just had some peculiar favorites like Last Days and Mysterious Skin that pushed it out. I think the problem Walk the Line has is it's a biopic, and we have Capote, not a biopic, but a spectacular performance, and last year we had Ray, a biopic that was also a spectacular performance, so Joaquin is a little overshadoowed, but it's a good movie and they both do a great job. Glad you liked it so much.

  9. #9
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    The director's cut has another scene from Massey Hall in Toronto, where Johnny proposed to June.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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