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The International Writers Magazin : DVD Review

Walk the line
Starring Joaquin Pheonix and Reese Witherspoon
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold
Callum Graham

Its 1952, Citroens line the streets in Germany and Chevy’s line the streets of America when a young Johnny Cash returns home to Memphis after finishing active service. Brand new Fenders are in the music shops after the birth of the fully electric guitar and Women are wearing patterned knee length dresses.

Many ex-service men, Cash included, are struggling to find work, whilst the rest of America is indulging in a post war consumerist boom. Cash is caught up in this need for money to support a young family whilst all he wants to do is play and sing. There is a moral message here though. Johnny Cash and his young wife Valerie’s relationship quickly deteriorate as Cash’s career blossoms and he hits the road. He states "I got you your dream house… all of these pretty little things", however they still can’t save his marriage. As Cash becomes more famous his life starts to spiral. Johnny Cash becomes one of the first to tread the treacherous path of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Throughout all this Joaquin Phoenix does a good job in the lead role. His voice is convincingly amateur during his earlier years but is also excellent later when Johnny Cash becomes a big star, singing such hits as ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Ring of Fire’. Similarly Reese Witherspoon is well cast as June Carter, singing and acting excellently. Both of the actors won Oscars for their performances. It was slightly disconcerting that neither Johnny nor June seemed to age between the war years and the infamous Folsom Prison gig of 1968. Still, maybe this was better than the inadequate ageing makeup or computer generated lines which might have detracted from the acting.

The soundtrack is, as you might expect, littered with Johnny Cash songs and a few others from white American rock and rollers. Even a young Elvis features a brief appearance. It was interesting to see that there was barely a reference at all to black culture in the 50’s bearing in mind that rock and roll grow out of black roots music.

At first I took for granted the extramarital sex that Johnny Cash was having, as now it seems an integral part of a widely accepted rock and roll lifestyle. However, ‘Walk the Line’ brings into perspective the religious and emotional consequences that this would have in the 50’s and 60’s. June Carter divorces her husband and even in the liberal post-war years the social stigma is uncomfortable. After being approached by a woman in a shop who states accusingly in her deep southern voice ‘marriage is for life’, June doubts her own morals in having sex with Cash out of wedlock.

By the end of the film I was still not convinced that I liked Johnny Cash. However I enjoyed the fact that this was not just a candid account of his rise to fame. The dirt and grit made the story compelling and I did feel like I had learnt something both about the man and the era. The film was written from Johnny Cash’s biography. If nothing else this film is sure to shift a lot of Johnny Cash’s albums of the record store shelves. I would recommend watching the film even if you are not a Cash fan.

© Callum Graham November 2008

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