Walk the Line review by Mike Long

It's no secret that Hollywood moves in trends and phases. And while films about famous or real figures have been around for ages, bio-pics (as they are known) have become very popular as of late. These films have had various levels of success at the box-office, but they are recognized far more often at the Academy Awards. Simply look at the nominees from the past few years; A Beautiful Mind, Pollock, Ali, Monster, The Aviator, and Ray -- just to name a few. These films can focus on very famous people or those that we know little about. The best ones take a public figure and share stories which may not be that familiar to most people -- getting us inside of that person's life. Walk the Line, which focuses on a period in the life of Johnny Cash, mixes the familiar and the new (to some) to a satisfying extent.

Walk the Line opens in 1944 in rural Arkansas, where meet a young John Cash (Ridge Canipe), who lives with his family, a poor group of farmers. Although John's life is often tough, there are many things that he loves; his brother Jack (Lucas Till), his Mother's hymnal, and the music which he hears on the radio, specifically that of the Carter Family. Following a tragic family accident, John's life becomes very sad. The story then leaps ahead a few years, when John (now played by Joaquin Phoenix) leaves home to join the Air Force and is stationed in Germany. While there, he begins to write music, when he's not attempting to woo Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) over the phone. When John leaves the service, he marries Vivian and they move to Memphis. John takes work as a door-to-door salesman while dreaming of being a musician.

One day, he stumbles upon Sun Records, a small recording studio. He convinces the owner, Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) to let him audition. The try-out goes well and John, who is re-named Johhny by Phillips, is able to cut a record. From there, Johnny is able to go on tour with the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. While on tour, Johnny meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whom he had been listening to since he was a child. At first, Johnny is simply startruck by June, but as he gets to know her, he begins to have feelings for her. He is also introduced to drugs while on tour, and the combination of narcotics, his growing longing for June, and the problems with his own marriage, begin to weigh on Johnny. Is it possible for a celebrity to fall beyond redemption?

Not to negate the level of talent which goes into making a feature film, but anyone can make a bio-pic, as long as you have a story based on the life a real person. (I think VH-1's Behind the Music proved this.) The key to a successful biography is to have a person who had a dynamic life with many ups and downs. They didn't necessarily have to be involved in anything adventurous or heroic, but they must go on a journey. Walk the Line certainly does this as we have an American icon who came up from nothing, found fame, almost lost it, and then rebounded.

Walk the Line works for several reasons. For starters, co-writers Gill Dennis and James Mangold have wisely chosen to focus on only 24 of the 71 years which Cash lived. They could have easily made a film which spanned all of Cash's life and career, but they made the movie about the period in Cash's life which defined him as both a performer and as a person. Yes, some audience members may be left unfulfilled as they wonder what happened next, but by taking a somewhat narrow view, the movie is able to really focus on how Cash's life changed. Mangold, who also directed the film, has also wisely chosen to make the movie about the music as well as being about Cash's life. Some filmmakers would have only played snippets of songs so as to keep the story moving along, but Mangold isn't afraid to let songs go on for several minutes. After all, Cash's life was defined by the music as much as it was by the relationships and drugs, and there's no reason to shy away from that.

Mangold also gets a huge boost from his cast. Joaquin Phoenix is very good as Cash and it's easy to see why he was nominated for an Oscar. While he doesn't look anything like Johnny Cash, Phoenix's seemingly natural brooding, dark persona comes through to create a character who feels real. Cash was known as an intense person and Phoenix certainly captures the intensity while also nailing the tender moments. Ginnifer Goodwin is very good as Johnny's long-suffering wife Vivian. I have read that the degree to which Vivian disagreed with Johnny has been exaggerated in the film, but she still does a great job of a woman who doesn't want to share her husband with the world. To be honest, I though Reese Witherspoon was good as June Carter, especially when compared to her performances in film such as Legally Blonde. She's certainly playing a different character here and she's believable, but I don't think that her performance was Oscar worthy. But, that's just me.

Walk the Line is satisfying, but it isn't perfect. Even if you know nothing about Johnny Cash, much of the storyline is predictable. (I hate to mention Behind the Music again, but if you've ever seen that show, then you predict the pitfalls which await Cash.) On the other hand, I felt that I knew something about Johnny Cash (my parents are fans), but I did learn a lot. (For my generation, Cash was a country music legend, and I had know idea that he became famous as a rockabilly singer.) Still, the movie is very entertaining and offers a detailed glimpse into the colorful life of the "Man in Black".

Walk the Line rocks onto DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one widescreen and the other full-frame. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version has been viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.39:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer looks very good as the image is sharp and clear. The picture shows no overt grain and there are no defects from the source material. Despite Cash's dark attire, the film isn't overly dark and the image is well-balanced. The one drawback to the transfer that I was noticed was that it was a bit flat -- it doesn't pop off of the screen and the colors aren't very dynamic. The DVD carries a both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1 track. I was excited to experience the DTS track, but I found the dynamic range on this track to be off-kilter and the music was much louder than the dialogue. The Dolby track had a better balance, where the dialogue wasn't overpowered by the other sounds. The most important point may be the fact that the music sounds great.

The widescreen version of Walk the Line is available in two versions. The one-disc version contains only a handful of extras. Director/co-writer James Mangold provides an audio commentary which focuses almost exclusively on the story and the acting. He makes copious comments about Phoenix's performance and the way in which the film mirrors Cash's life. He doesn't talk much about locations or film techniques. The DVD also contains 10 Deleted Scenes which run about 23 minutes. They include an optional commentary from Mangold and feature a "PLAY ALL" option. These scene mostly show very small, incidental moments which were cut from the film, but I really liked Cash's reaction to the pressing of his first single. The Theatrical Trailer is also included here. Fox has also released a two-disc Collector's Edition of Walk the Line, where the second disc contains a making of featurette, documentaries on Cash, and music videos.

8 out of 10 Jackasses

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