Making the Grades
How far can an individual safely stray when portraying a legendary figure like The Man In Black? In Walk the Line, actor Joaquin Phoenix and director James Mangold appear to have found that indefinable balance between absolute impersonation and artistic license.
Based on Johnny Cash's two autobiographies, the script begins with the singer's turbulent young years that were blighted by an abusive upbringing on a poor cotton farm and culminates with an inciting 1968 concert for the inmates at Folsom Prison.
Having learned to sing at his mother's knee during the long, hot hours of cotton picking, Johnny develops an early love for music and particularly religious hymns. But when his older brother (Lucas Till) is killed in a bloody accident, Johnny's father (Robert Patrick) blames him. The mishap costs the young boy his father's love and sets him on a long journey to find his own worth.
Following a military stint in Germany, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) marries, begins a family and takes on the unsatisfying and discouraging work of a door-to-door salesman. During that time, he comes across a storefront studio where artists can cut their own record. He convinces two mechanic friends (Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby) to back him up at an audition. While the studio owner (Dallas Roberts) is initially unimpressed with their rendition of a gospel staple, his attitude changes when Johnny and his original "garage band" bring out their own material.
After the successful release of their first recording, "Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two" become part of a traveling tour that includes up-and-coming musicians like Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). However, the long road trips leave him unbelievably tired, and soon drugs and liquor become the panacea of choice. Eventually, his time away from his wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) and his budding relationship with June also take a toll on his personal life.
Wisely keeping some emotional distance, June intervenes on Johnny's behalf after his divorce. While the film fails to adequately explain her reasons for doing so, it portrays her energetic efforts to help the singer through his self-imposed detox. In order to help him clean up, she, along with the help of her parents and two long-barreled rifles, stays off a drug dealer who comes peddling his pills at Johnny's lakeside home.
Focusing on June's redemptive actions, this tale of drug addiction and despair is saved from wallowing in a depressing melody. Witherspoon's earnest performance paired with Phoenix's powerful imitation of Cash's musical style brings to screen the pitfalls as well as the pinnacles of Cash's career.
While parents will want to consider the recurrent depictions of drug use before letting older teens see this film, there are some serious consequences shown for this dangerous behavior. Other concerns include numerous profanities (including an extreme expletive) and several scenes of implied sexual activity between unmarried adults.
Despite a troubled start and often-defiant attitude, Johnny is still able to find a sort of rebirth under June's care. Hopefully, this portrayal of love will strike a chord with Cash's fans.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Walk the Line.
June has an ability to look beyond Johnny’s addiction and shortcomings. Because of that, how was she able to help him deal with his own destructive behavior? What do you think she sees in him? What role can strong friends play in helping a person overcome problems?
What parental opinions do both Johnny and June have to deal with in the film? How do those views affect the way they perceive themselves? How does each of them respond?
What challenges can accompany success? What are the less glamorous aspects of the music business?