Musical biographies are often enjoyable, but there’s something special about the ones in which movie stars go the extra mile and recreate the vocals of famous singers.
Sissy Spacek’s beloved imitation of Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” stands out, and so does Gary Busey’s uncanny impersonation of Buddy Holly in “The Buddy Holly Story.” To that short list, we can now add Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in “Walk the Line.”
In each case, the vocals become an essential part of a characterization, making even the non-singing scenes seem part of a pattern. Music flows through these personalities, sometimes making it difficult to tell the difference between an on-stage performance and off-stage behavior. And that’s as it should be.
This emphasis is especially important in “Walk the Line,” which presents Cash and Carter as two lost souls, burdened by childhood traumas, who spend most of the movie ridding themselves of their problems (including their ill-considered marriages to others) and finding themselves in their music.
She’s been raised as a clown and a cut-up, convinced that she can’t sing. He’s been blamed by his father for his saintly brother’s early death. Dad even tells Cash that the wrong son died, and he carries this resentment with him like a torch.
When Carter is a child star in the mid-1940s, Cash falls for her while listening to the radio. When he becomes a recording star in the mid-1950s, he encourages her to be a singer. When he turns to drugs in the 1960s, she’s there to tell him off and help him kick the habit. Inevitably, they spend the last 35 years of their lives as a devoted married couple.
Directed and co-written by James Mangold, who guided Angelina Jolie to an Oscar in “Girl, Interrupted,” the movie takes more than two hours to demonstrate that these two people belong together. It’s a tribute to Mangold and his actors that we never doubt it. It’s a great love story.
It’s also a remarkable vehicle for Witherspoon, who brings out June’s twangy, improvisatory comic genius as well as her level-headedness, and Phoenix, who has never held the screen before the way he does here. At times he seems possessed by the spirit of Cash, who died just two years ago (a few months after June died). There are moments, when the camera catches him from a certain angle, or his voice develops a deep, raspy, demonic Cash-ness, when you’d swear that Cash and Phoenix had merged into the same person.
Although the other actors don’t get much screen time (Tyler Hilton gives a throwaway performance as Elvis Presley), two supporting players make an impression: Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips, who gives Cash his big break by lecturing him, and Ginnifer Goodwin as Cash’s first wife, Vivian, who tries to make him conform to her ideas of a “regular” marriage. Also quite effective are Robert Patrick as Cash’s unforgiving father and Lucas Till as the son he wishes had survived.