For any veteran viewer of American cinema, the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, raises some serious questions about the relationships between life and art, and which one really imitates the other. According to the movies, all famous singers and musicians undergo pretty much the same troubles and travails on their journey to fame and fortune, which makes most biographies look very much alike. Must the career of a musical artist always follow the same pattern, do the artists model their lives on films, or do the movies simply copy each other?
Whatever its historical accuracy, and whether art imitates life or life imitates art, or most likely, art imitates art, Walk the Line resembles a hundred other movies of its kind. It chronicles, in its fashion, the career of the legendary singer from his childhood in rural Arkansas to a point of triumph and happiness in 1968, then provides a brief prose summary of the next 35 years until his death in 2003. It mostly concentrates on a number of important moments in his career from the 1950s and '60s, when his great success, in the comforting, time honored fashion, led him to great unhappiness and the familiar pitfalls of drug addiction and alcoholism.
The movie travels a familiar path, showing the young Johnny oppressed by a drunken father who prefers his older brother, tragically killed in a terrible accident; the singer's remorse and resentment partially account for his later problems with success. In a characteristic series of narrative jumps, it then shows the grown man (now played by Joaquin Phoenix) taking up the guitar and composing lyrics while in the Air Force in Germany, then, inexplicably, suddenly proposing over the telephone to a young woman back home, who has never appeared until that moment. By the next jump, he's married, a father, and an unsuccessful door-to-door salesman in Memphis, Tennessee.
Walk the Line hits its stride when Cash and his group audition for Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who dismisses his awful gospel songs, but also in a sense reveals to the young singer the right direction for his talent. Once he makes his first record and embarks on a tour with such rock and roll pioneers as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, success apparently comes more easily than usual in the movies. On the tour, with a kind of inevitability, he also finally meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), of the famous Carter Family, whose music he has followed since childhood, and, of course, he falls in love.
The bumpy course of the relationship between Cash and Carter supplies the emotional center of the movie, as they struggle through their marriages and divorces and his increasing dependence on booze and pills. She fends him off for what seems like years, while he sinks into increasingly self-destructive behaviors, finally drying him out and apparently --- in a most perfunctory scene --- bringing him to the Baptist Church. (Like movie stars who check into the Betty Ford Clinic, country singers with personal and professional problems generally record some gospel songs, though Walk the Line neglects most of that aspect of Cash's career.)
Although the plot, presumably true to the singer's life, tends to repeat itself, the songs and the performances create and sustain most of the energy of Walk the Line. Joaquin Phoenix quite remarkably imitates the look, the posture, the walk, and above all, that deep, dark voice --- he sounds good enough to embark on his own tour --- and the movie comes wonderfully alive when Johnny Cash strides on to the stage, introduces himself, and just takes off into those wonderful songs, so far superior to the usual laments about honky tonks and cheating hearts.
The soppy, tiresome love story unfortunately slows down the narrative and weakens the considerable force of Johnny Cash's personality in Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon deserves much of the blame for those problems; she plays June Carter with all the perkiness of a cheerleader, diminishing Carter's own terrific talent and presence. The picture's emotional relationship, unfortunately, cannot match the power of its musical duet, suggesting once again that if art imitates life, it also outlasts love.
Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown