Joaquin Phoenix did not have to learn just to sing and play guitar. He had to learn to strum the strings in the distinctive freight-train rhythms of Johnny Cash and sing in his sonorous storytelling style.
In “Walk the Line,” which premiered Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival, Phoenix and co-star Reese Witherspoon as the love of Cash’s life, June Carter, ably step into their musical roles, re-creating the singers’ lively stage shows that blossomed into a long and stormy courtship.
The first advice writer-director James Mangold gave Phoenix to prepare for the role was to buy a guitar. Phoenix had not been a singer or musician by any means but learned chords, songwriting, Cash’s unique way of looping his arm around the guitar and to embody the rich, deep voice of the Man In Black in his younger years.
“It was quite dynamic, actually, his voice,” Phoenix told The Associated Press. “I thought, well, his voice is fairly simple, and it was in some respects. But a song like ‘Walk the Line,’ for instance, one thing he did is change keys. That song, every verse changes keys.”
“Walk the Line” tells of Cash’s childhood, his brother’s accidental death, his obsession with music despite his pragmatic father’s objections and his early struggles to support his first wife and family as a traveling salesman before mustering the courage to audition for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records.
The film follows the raucous touring years with Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins among others, and Cash’s growing infatuation with Carter, the spitfire of one of country music’s famous clans. The movie opens theatrically in November.
As in last year’s “Ray,” which premiered at the Toronto festival and eventually earned Jamie Foxx the best-actor Academy Award as singer Ray Charles, “Walk the Line” delves deeply into Cash’s demons, including drug problems that nearly destroyed his career.
'An artist of the shadows'Also like Charles, Cash made clear that he wanted his story told warts and all. Involved with the project since the late 1990s, Mangold spoke with Cash frequently up until a short time before the country music legend’s death Sept. 12, 2003 (four months after Carter died).
“I had the advantage of making a movie about a man who was an artist himself, and an artist of the shadows, in the sense that he understood life’s lonelinesses and life’s mistakes, and that people make them. In that sense, he wasn’t interested in hiding them,” Mangold said.
“He was much more concerned about protecting others than himself. The thing he would always say to me was, ‘I don’t care if I look bad. Just don’t make other, innocent people look bad, because they were my mistakes.”’
Phoenix recalls his one meeting with Cash a couple of years before the singer died, an encounter that made clear how deeply the power of music filled the man’s soul. It was at a dinner party with a friend of Cash’s, and afterward everyone went into the living room, where Cash picked up a guitar.
“He was really shaky, his hands were really shaky,” Phoenix said. “We felt, oh, does he feel obligated to try and play guitar for people? He picked it up, and like his body changed completely, and he seemed to be totally at ease.
“I thought, he feels more comfortable with the guitar, and he just started strumming. It was amazing. It was like a brand new body, suddenly. I’ve never seen anything like that.”