Walk the Line (2-Disc Collector's Edition) Review
Folsom Prison in 1968 and the main hall is filled with prisoners banging on the tables, stomping their feet and hollering for Johnny Cash but his band, who are on stage running through the same four bars are looking nervous and casting worried glances at the door of the Wood Shop, where Cash is waiting before going on stage. What caught Cash's eye is a circular saw and as he presses his thumb into its blade, he remembers back to when he was five and his brother Jack died after getting caught up in one. Johnny, or just JR as he'd been then, had gone fishing and had been picked up by his father, his shirt soaked in Jack's blood, taken to the hospital to hear Jack say, just before he died, that he could hear the angels in Heaven calling him. That audience can wait a minute or two...
The very first minutes of Walk The Line are amongst the best that you'll ever see in a music biopic. Typically, the last minutes that a band or an artist has alone before walking out on stage are almost a celebration of the love that the audience has for them, which invokes a certain sense of invulnerability. Think of Stillwater's confidence as they arrive on stage in Almost Famous or Jim Morrison being marched through the crowd before the open-air gig outside of San Francisco in The Doors - their lack of doubt is startling. Never is the life of a rock musician ever allowed to be seen as being anything less than blue-jeaned royalty. Were Jim Morrison to declare himself tired of chewing, you suspect there would have been someone on hand to do it for him.
But two films, or features, released in 2005 gave some suggestion to the doubts felt by musicians as they come before thousands of their fans. No Direction Home, Martin Scorcese's stunning documentary on Bob Dylan, showed the singer often battling his audience as he took his music electric, either wrestling with his guitar or playing piano with his back to them just to fight his way to the end of a song over the jeers and catcalls. Walk The Line doesn't have quite the same problem - it draws to a close before Cash's career bottomed out in the eighties and early-nineties - but it does see its subject, Johnny Cash, have those same doubts and crises as the rest of us, worried about staying awake for his next shift, about spending enough time with his kids, about the guilt he felt over the death of his brother and how, despite his writing and recording Walk The Line, he was torn apart by his love for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a girl he first heard singing when he was sharing a bedroom with his brother Jack growing up on a cotton farm in Arkansas.
Walk The Line has been structured as an extended flashback with the scenes in Folsom Prison effectively bookending the film. The album At Folsom Prison was recorded and released in 1968 but before Cash gets on stage, the film goes back to his home life as a twelve-year-old and to the death of his brother, which led, the film suggests, to Cash having a troubled relationship with his father that would exist for most of the rest of his life. Cash's religion came early and the difference between Jack and he is shown by one talking about scriptures whilst the other listens to a young June Carter singing on the radio. Jack and JR are shown to be close, running off from the cotton field to go fishing, and its the death of his older brother that hits JR hard, leaving him drifting through life until he takes an army posting in Germany in 1952, where he buys a guitar, begins writing songs and, one night, watches a newsreel that will change his fortunes, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Within the barracks, Cash writes Folsom Prison Blues and when his term of service ended, he returns home, marries his high-school sweetheart Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin) and takes a job selling door-to-door but dreaming of getting his music on record.
After auditioning for Sam Philips, owner of Sun Records, which is also home to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash is put on the road with his Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant) and the rest of the Sun lineup in a package tour of the south, where he meets and becomes infatuated with June Carter, then married to Carl Smith. What follows is a difficult relationship between the two, where they fall in and out of love but never able to commit to one another until June hears from Cash that she's his number one, the thing that he needs above all else. What stops him is his marriage to Vivian, his being a father to Roseanne, Kathleen, Cindy and Tara, his being on tour, his addiction to pills, his sharing a shabby apartment with Waylon Jennings and, finally, his own inability to commit to her.
It's worth clarifying that anyone coming to Walk The Line and expecting much footage of Cash in concert will be disappointed. Of course, that footage is there but Cash's professional life as a musician comes second to Cash as a brother, son, husband, father and lover and it's these relationships that define the film and give it structure. Therefore, we see Cash enjoying the perks of casual female company on the road but only in the sense of how it affects the relationship between him and June Carter. His addiction to amphetamines, a steady diet of which would sustain him during the gruelling Sun Records tours of the fifties, isn't shown to have any affect on his recordings. Even his collapse on stage, though partly due to a mix of amphetamines and alcohol, is seen to be blamed more on a bout of depression brought about by yet another rejection by June Carter than by a spiraling addiction that sees him unable to function without reaching for his bottle of pills.
But Walk The Line is principally a love story between June Carter and Johnny Cash and it's this love for Carter that keeps Cash going when he's at his very lowest. When he wakes up in the apartment that he shares with Waylon Jennings and finds the phone disconnected, he struggles to get it switched back on just so he's never more than a phone call away from Carter. When his car is impounded, he walks out to Carter's house just so he can see her face and when he's alone on Thanksgiving, it's Carter that he calls for company. Despite her rejections, he's never done asking her to marry him and it's credit to Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that it's as believable a relationship as it is. Cash could have been a difficult character to bring to the screen - he's an addict for a good deal of the film and his treatment of June Carter is sometimes poor - but Phoenix does well to imbue Cash with weaknesses, as a man driven to succeed but who needs a great deal of help to do so. Director James Mangold has cast his Johnny Cash with that in mind, presenting Cash's journey as realising that it's June Carter that he needs and not success, not amphetamines and not casual sex, ending it in 1968 when they finally marry, only a week after he proposed at the London Gardens in Ontario on February 22, 1968.
As well as this, though, James Mangold doesn't forget that any fan of Cash is going to want to hear the songs and he doesn't disappoint. Joaquin Phoenix does a Val Kilmer on Cash's material by recording his own vocals and he's not bad but it's obvious that he doesn't have Cash's range - there are moments when Cash would have dropped his voice at the end of a line where Phoenix has to raise his to hit the same notes - but the selection of songs is second-to-none. Get Rhythm, Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire and Jackson are all included, as is the superb Cocaine Blues from At Folsom Prison but there's never just quite enough of it. But what the film passes on is what happens after June Carter finally accepts Johnny Cash's offer of marriage - it fades to black shortly after the two agree to marry. Cash would go on to record an even better prison album than that he'd done at Folsom when, a year later, he played San Quentin but, more importantly, Cash, even in reaching something approaching contentment, never stopped kicking against whatever rolled into his path. He famously fell out with the country music establishment in Nashville - after their success with American Recordings, Rick Rubin and Cash would use a photograph of him flipping the bird to sarcastically extend a note of thanks to Nashville for their continuing support - and battled an addiction to painkillers later in life but by ending when it does, Walk The Line fails to really capture just how solid the marriage of June Carter and Johnny Cash really was.
There were together from 1968 to June's death in 2003, thirty-five years of marriage, and even when Cash was ready to give up performing, he was sure that June's spirit remained with him. As with so many couples, Johnny died only four months after June leaving a body of unreleased work that Rick Rubin brought together on the Unearthed boxset. By reducing the post-1968 years to a short pre-credits card, Walk The Line doesn't tell the whole Cash story but it does a fine job of capturing the drama and turmoil in his life prior to his marriage to June Carter. It's portrayal of those years is the film's greatest achievement but a greater one will be whether it draws people to the music of Johnny Cash. If it does, it'll be well worth it for there's a great deal to be discovered there with the very best of it not making it into Mangold's film. That, though, may be more of a reflection on Cash's talent than Mangold's for this is good but Cash was great.
Walk The Line doesn't ever look particularly exciting - it favours the soft, pleasant appearance of a Living TV biopic - but the DVD does well to present the film without any obvious faults. A director with more visual flair may have pushed the format more but with most of the extras on the second disc, the film gets a great deal of space on the first disc that, other than some shimmering around the onscreen text, looks very good.
With a choice of DTS and Dolby Digital surround tracks, Walk The Line sounds fantastic and never better than in the concert sequences. The playing of Cocaine Blues in Folsom and Get Rhythm in Texarkana are probably the best in the film, with the DTS track sounding the better of the two, with a greater range and clarity.
Commentary: James Mangold is on his own for this track and despite facing two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes of film to comment on, he does a good job, only taking a break to catch his breath, allow a scene to finish and to collect his thoughts before beginning again. Mangold has clearly got a great many thoughts on Cash's life and shares them throughout his commentary, going into detail on the years in which the film's set, the characters that surround his central pairing and how well Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon took to their roles. Never exciting and occasionally a touch dull, Mangold is good for a listen but there's not a great deal to come back to.
Deleted Scenes (23m44s): With an optional commentary by director James Mangold, who typically doesn't do much more than explain why these scenes were cut from the finished film, these ten scenes offer a little more character to Walk The Line. From Jack's funeral to Cash's begging at the bank for them to clear his royalty cheque, they aren't essential but are interesting nonetheless.
Extended Musical Sequences: There are three such scenes included here, all longer versions of what appeared in the final theatrical cut. Available with either a Dolby Digital 5.1 or Stereo soundtrack, they are Rock And Roll Ruby (1m16s), Jackson (2m38s) and Cocaine Blues (1m52s).
Folsom, Cash & the Comeback (11m47s): In 1968, Johnny Cash entered Folsom Prison to play for the inmates and the live album that was recorded became a classic entry in his long career. Beginning with his own Folsom Prison Blues, At Folsom Prison mixed gospel, country and rock'n'roll, only being interrupted by the hollers of the prisoners, announcements from the Warden and Cash taking time out to ask for a glass of water. Yet, even now it would be a brave singer who played a high-security prison, least of all a country singer like Cash who, many suspected would be more at home in the Grand Ol' Opry that singing Jackson to a room full of killers. This feature looks back on the playing and the recording of that concert and examines the impact of it through interviews with Steve Pond of Rolling Stone, Kris Kristofferson and Cash biographer Patrick Carr. In terms of completeness, it's hard to fault it when, halfway through, we even take in a tour of Folsom Prison, including the hall where Cash played.
Celebrating The Man In Black (21m42s): When Willie Nelson appears in the opening seconds of this feature, there's the feeling that what is about to follow will be good and it largely doesn't disappoint. There's also a certain amount of disappointment when Henry Rollins also offers his less-than-impressive thoughts on Cash but so long as the cast and various friends of Johnny Cash stay on the screen, this is a sympathetically-made feature that doesn't go into the technicalities of the production as much as the characters and Cash's personality. The best contributions come from Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and one-time member of the Tennessee Two Marshall Grant, who cut through some of the hyperbole and try to explain what made the Cash they knew such a good friend to them.
Ring of Fire (11m30s): It's one of popular music's greatest romances and with the help of those who knew them, this feature looks back at the love affair between June Carter and Johnny Cash and how, though they never seemed destined to marry, ended as husband and wife until June's death in 2003. Take the clips from the film for what they are - a nice promotional exercise but never particularly illuminating - and listen to Carter and Cash's family and friends talk about them and you're left with a heartfelt story of a love that wouldn't die despite the difficulties that it presented. All it's really missing is some archive footage of Carter and Cash together and although there are some stills towards the end of the feature, it doesn't seem to be quite enough.
Finally, there are two trailers - one for the Theatrical release of the film (1m50s) and the other for the Soundtrack Album (1m04s) released to tie in with this feature. There is also a set of five postcards in this two-disc set.
Good though it is, the best moments between Johnny Cash and June Carter are those that appear on record. Their recording of John Sebastian's Darlin' Companion on At San Quentin, the live album that followed At Folsom Prison a year later, where they tease and flirt with one another gets closer to their love affair in its five minutes than does this entire film. Cash's, "Oh, a little saucy mare like you should have a steed!" is one of his very best deliveries of a line but it's the obvious pride in his introducing of June Carter as his wife that rings most true, as though a year after they were married, he still can't quite believe it.
I've written about Cash before - as well as the reviews of Love, God, Murder, the four American Recordings releases (I, Unchained, Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around), At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, I have also written this piece about his life for CD Times - but I can't ever seem to get enough about him. His music had its less than great moments but I'm fascinated by a man who struck his first records alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who played prisons, whose faith in God never wavered and who ended up releasing a series of four critically acclaimed albums that were amongst his very best. He could write, he could act and he had a voice like thunder and this film goes some way to capturing that but it's far from the full story.
This is a good film with a couple of great performances and the DVD isn't bad but it's not a patch on Cash on record, which is where any fans of this film should head to next. At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin ought to be in any decent record collection but the Love, God, Murder set is a great point at which to start building a collection as well as an understanding of the one of music's greatest talents.