For almost a decade, the two act out their heart-throbbing strictly on the stage. Then, comes a quick hotel tryst, more abstinence, stage flirtation and finally a huge romantic moment when Johnny pops the question (asked and rejected many times privately) before a packed audience. When June says, “Yes,” it’s a highlight that saves Johnny’s life and the movie, both of which are floundering.
Co-written and directed by James Mangold, “I Walk the Line” is a big cumbersome biopic, featuring Oscar-worthy acting from Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June. Unlike Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing. The duo is surprisingly good, with Joaquin capturing Cash’s famous baritone and Reese playing Carter’s perkiness to perfection.
However, the off-stage acting is more conventional. The actors never seem to age, as the Cash voice loses its distinctive bass during the soap-opera dialogue. We see Johnny being discovered by record producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at his Memphis Sun Studios in 1955. Other than the wonderful performance scenes (including the classic one at Folsom Prison in 1968), not much is revealed about the magic of Cash’s music. When June asks how he creates his sound, Johnny simply shrugs and says, “It just happens.” Come on. There must be more to it than that.
In 136 minutes, we do learn something about Cash’s childhood (like singer Ray Charles of “Ray,” he was guilt-ridden about the accidental death of his brother) and a lot about his drug-dependency, marital problems, financial troubles and, of course, unrequited love for June.
Compared to other dramatic film biographies, “I Walk the Line” falls short of the great ones (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Ray” and “Capote”). With a bit more editing, “Line” may have been shaped into something truly fine.
But, if you’re crazy for Cash, don’t miss “I Walk the Line.”