Read this review of the the recently released 2 disc set of the 2005 movie now available, with extended scenes of the film and deleted scenes, extended scenes, and a number of featurettes which gives the uninitiated a view into the element which made Cash the man he was as a musician, and as a human being too.
Joseph Campbell talked about the hero cycles of ancient myths, that every mythic tale follows the same pattern. We love to hear stories again and again because they resonate with our perceptions of the human experience. Walk the Line (Extended Cut) shows that not much has changed. We still want to hear and see stories about the heroes and titans of our time, to discover the humanity behind the legend. Recently, the movie Walk Hard proved that the music bio-pic is pretty easy to make fun of. That’s because even the most interesting tales of the lives of some of our most beloved musicians follows a pattern too. This usually involves a dreary backdrop of poverty and boredom, often in a dull small town or dangerous inner city. It often involves a depressed childhood too, or some childhood trauma that shapes the man. Then, we have the stuggles to become known, the meteoric rise to fame, the relationship difficulties, the drugs, the decent into hell (whatever form that may take), and the redemption from it. Along the way, a love story helps too.
With the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, we get all of this. And with some Hollywood intervention and stretches of the truth in places, we get a box office smash aimed at the casual music fan as well as at the casual movie goer who likes a bit of romance, tragedy, human failures and weaknesses, and the healing power of true love as well. But, if you’re looking for a portrayal that sheds light on who Cash was, as far as this film goes, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.
The real Johnny Cash stands as a paragon of musical integrity. When he sings, you believe every word, even about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. As such, Joaquin Phoenix had big boots to fill, and he doesn’t quite make it, despite his obvious talent. The impression one is left with is a man who is doing a good job of portraying Cash, but not really inhabiting him or helping to give dimension to the legend. Phoenix plays Cash as a vulnerable man-child. Phoenix’s Cash is easily led, easily hurt, and is generally weak willed. We see none of his strength, his integrity, his sense of purpose. This part of it for me was disappointing, particularly considering that the real Johnny Cash was involved in the script, working with director James Mangold.
Here’s a video except taken from one of the featurettes from the extended cut of the movie which talks about the strength of the man, the core characteristic which made him such an admirable figure among his peers:
Fortunately, Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter adds the strength of character the story requires of a hero. Carter is a woman growing up as a modern day princess in the Carter Family, the key architects in forming what is known as country music for everyone who would follow them. Again, the mythic significance here is pretty powerful, with Cash as the questing hero trying to win the heart of the princess. Yet, it’s the princess who does the saving here, not the hero who is a lost little boy ultimately looking for approval. Witherspoon rises to the challenge in a role which demonstrates her range as well as reminding us just how watchable she is. It may well be the Phoenix’s portrayal was felt to be necessary in order to add to how important June Carter was to his redemption. But, that’s a fine balance that really needed to be struck.
To me, we still needed to see that Cash was a pioneer, a mover, and someone who took risks not out of petulance or selfishness, but because he had an inner strength to do what was necessary, despite his flaws. The film suggests Cash’s redemption comes about because he was saved by love. Where this can’t entirely be sidelined – it is a compelling element to Cash’ life – making it central to the story means that Cash’s strength of character is all but absent here. Instead, he becomes a romance novel fantasy figure – the bad boy who only needs the love of a good woman to redeem him. The emphasis on his drug habit hurts the film in this regard too, much like an Elvis picture would if it concentrated on how many peanut butter and banana sandwiches the King ate. For my money, we need to see what made Cash great in spite of the drugs, and in many ways despite June Carter too.
Overall, the retelling of this story is compelling because of the romance angle. Ultimately, this is why this story was made into a movie to start with; good actors in Phoenix and Witherspoon portraying two people in love who must overcome prejudice and their own human failings to preserve that love. And there’s no denying the talent of the two leads, who also do their own singing (Witherspoon in particular is very convincing in this department…) under the tutelage of Americana go-to guy T-Bone Burnett. For this, the film is recommended. And the extras included in this edition of the DVD are outstanding.
If you want to find out who Johnny Cash is and what drove his darkly compelling and intensely believable musical voice, the extras included here shed a bit of light on the man from the point of view of some of his peers and followers. The addition of the featurettes makes this new 2 disc set a worthy purchase in an of itself. Even as a lesson in musical history, from Cash’s touring days, the history of the Carter Family and June Carter’s background, to Cash’s Folsom Prison live album, this makes for interesting and dare I say educational viewing. Even if you’re not a fan of country music, if you care about music in general, the extras here make for some pretty compelling viewing.