- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

“Walk the Line” opens outside the walls of Folsom State Prison, the Northern California penitentiary where Johnny Cash staged his watershed 1968 concert for an audience of deliriously grateful inmates. A galvanic rockabilly rhythm is faintly chugging. A black crow lands on a fence. A guard watches night fall, tired, aloof to the history being made inside.

It’s a scene of seam-bursting anticipation that the rest of James Mangold’s big-screen biography of the late Mr. Cash, good as it is, never lives up to. Johnny Cash’s hit songs crackle — composer/arranger T. Bone Burnett saw to that. Joaquin Phoenix, as Mr. Cash, and Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter, sing better than fine. And the movie is peppered with moments of humor, tenderness and Man-in-Black coolness.

The sight of Mother Maybelle Carter brandishing a rifle is worth the price of admission alone.

Where it disappoints is in Mr. Mangold’s almost monomaniacal dependency on a story line that hews dangerously close to cliche: Mr. Cash abused his body (pills and booze) and was redeemed by the love of Miss Carter, his steel-spined spitfire of a second wife. (The love of God is an idea that’s hinted at, but too hot to handle for mainstream entertainment.)

It’s true that every movie (every biopic, at least) needs some kind of tidy device in which to frame the important events of a life. Mr. Cash’s descent into addiction and his slow-burning — for years unrequited — love for Miss Carter gave Mr. Mangold what he needed, and enslaved him.

After touching down briefly at Folsom, the movie zooms backward to a sepia-toned, Depression-era Arkansas, where the Cash family — Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne play parents Ray and Carrie Cash, while Lucas Till plays eldest brother Jack — works a cotton farm. Here, a tragically formative incident (an uncanny parallel to one in last year’s Ray Charles biopic, “Ray”) occurs: Jack suffers a fatal accident in a woodshop.

The loss drives a permanent wedge between J.R., as Mr. Cash was known as a boy, and his mercurial alcoholic father, who favored the seemingly more industrious, Bible-studying Jack over the aimless boy who snuggled up to the radio to listen to the music of the Carter family.

Flash forward to the Korean War and the introduction of Mr. Phoenix: John Cash, now in the Air Force, is off to Germany, where he picks up a guitar and bangs out a potentially compelling original song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” All the while, romantic stars are aligning, as John happens on a picture of Carter family cutup June in a magazine.

Stateside again, in Memphis, John Cash marries the sweetheart he dated for a month before the war. Vivian Cash (Ginnifer Goodwin) is one of many characters in this movie who is punished by plot compression. She’s rarely more than an unsupportive harridan. Sun Records legend Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) figures in an electrifying audition scene, and then it’s goodbye, Sam.

Waylon Malloy Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis, an early touring mate of Mr. Cash’s, is interesting; less so is a reportedly sex-obsessed Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton). Blink, and you’ll never catch Roy Orbison. Mr. Cash’s band mates, the famous Tennessee Two, are like mute moons that orbit around the Man in Black.

Speaking of black, Mr. Cash’s discovery that he looked great in dark clothes is treated superheroically — like Bruce Wayne slipping down the Batpole.

After quickly sketching Mr. Cash’s rise to fame, “Walk the Line” spends an excessive amount of time down and out with Johnny Cash the Pill Popper. Much has been made of Mr. Phoenix’s crash course in singing, but he is seen equally as often in a slough of sweat and gauntness — typical Method fare.

At the end of a two-plus-hour stretch, “Walk the Line” doesn’t tell you much more about Johnny Cash than VH1 could.

But it is Johnny Cash we’re talking about — and his life, his rebellious talent and bighearted morality, make for a hard-to-resist movie.

**1/2

TITLE: “Walk the Line”

RATING: PG-13 (Some profanity; mild sexuality; depictions of drug dependency)

CREDITS: Directed by James Mangold. Produced by James Keach and Cathy Konrad. Written by Mr. Mangold and Gill Dennis, based on “The Man in Black” by Johnny Cash and “Cash: An Autobiography” by Mr. Cash and Patrick Carr. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Score by T-Bone Burnett.

RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes.

WEB SITE: http://www.walkthelinethemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

Must-Haves

1. At Folsom Prison — The stunning live album that, in 1968, restored Johnny Cash’s relevance in a world dominated by second-generation rockers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

2. The Essential Johnny Cash This double-disc set from Columbia Records includes Mr. Cash’s definitive hits for Sun Records, plus the beloved “Ring of Fire” and intriguing late-period oddities such as “The Wanderer,” a collaboration with U2.

—3. At San Quentin The equally pwerful sequel to “At Folsom Prison” yielded the Man in Black’s only single on the Top 10 pop charts, “A Boy Named Sue.”

—4. American Recordings — Aging and increasingly ignored, even by country radio, Mr. Cash teamed with cutting-edge producer Rick Rubin on this, the first — and best — of a stunning tetralogy.

5. My Mother’s Hymn Book— Wanna know what made Johnny Cash tick? It’s all right here on this stark gospel collection, a favorite of Mr. Cash’s.

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