Walk the Line - Phoenix and Witherspoon Bring Johnny Cash and June Carter to Life

Nov 25, 2005 (Updated Oct 6, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon

Cons:Some slower spots. Only covered a small portion of Johnny and June's lives.

The Bottom Line: Walk the Line was a very entertaining movie that is worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were amazing in it.


Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash, is one of the best movies I have seen this year. I never really considered myself to be a fan of Cash, but I did like some of his songs. I saw the trailer many times and did think it looked interesting so I decided that I wanted to see it. I do like Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, which also played a part in me wanting to see the movie.

Walk the Line covered twenty four years of Johnny Cash’s life, from 1944 to 1968. The movie really focused in on the time when Cash was starting his career in music and the problems he had to deal with, which was in the 1950s and 1960s. Only a few minutes were set in 1944 when Johnny was still a child which showed that he didn’t have a happy childhood. His older brother Jack died after an accident with a very nasty looking saw. Johnny was still dealing with that as an adult since his father, Ray, didn’t make any secret of the fact that he felt that the wrong son died. The highlights of young Johnny’s life were when he heard the Carter Family, especially June, on the radio. Johnny had a love of music instilled in him by his mother, which lead to his dream of becoming a professional singer.

After being discharged from the Air Force, Johnny married Vivian and the two moved to Memphis where they started their family. He was working as a salesman but still had his dream and started his own band. He managed to get a chance to audition at Sun Records. He was signed to a contract and started touring with other young performers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. He and June Carter met backstage at a performance and developed a friendship. They were drawn to each other, but the relationship was complicated because he was married and she had gone through a divorce. The touring strained his already troubled marriage with Vivian, who seemed to become jealous of June as the tours continued. Johnny was introduced to drugs and was addicted for years before June and her parents finally helped him kick the habit after his marriage had ended.

Before I saw Walk the Line, I didn’t know a lot about Johnny Cash or June Carter. I knew that Cash was a popular singer without knowing anything about how he started his career in music. I knew that he and June had been married for years though I didn’t know anything about the obstacles they faced in their relationship before they were married. I learned that Johnny had been married to Vivian when I read some things before the release of the movie. I hadn’t known that June had been married before either. The movie didn’t go into a lot of details about them, but there was enough information shared for me to learn more about them. I thought certain events, especially connected to Johnny’s childhood, helped to explain why he did certain things later in life. I enjoyed the parts that focused on the developing relationship between Johnny and June and would have liked to have seen more about their lives together after they got married. A little bit of information related to that, like that they had a son and were married for thirty-five years before they died four months apart in 2003, were shared at the end of the movie.

The movie was at least partially based on two Johnny Cash autobiographies. I haven’t read either of them, though I am interesting in tracking them down now. It started off in 1944, but very little was shown from that point in Johnny’s life. I think the only reason that was included was to show Jack’s death, which really affected Johnny throughout his life. Time was spent to show Johnny when he was in the Air Force and then how he and Vivian were living in Memphis after their marriage. Even at that point, Vivian didn’t seem that happy with Johnny. The time before Johnny got a record contract and started to tour did drag a little bit. The pace did pick up when all the touring was shown. Once June was involved, the movie didn’t drag even during the times when the pace slowed. The majority of the movie focused on things that happened to Johnny in the late 1950's through 1968.

Johnny had to deal with a lot of serious things throughout the portion of his life shared during the movie. Only a short amount of his childhood was shown, but somehow I don’t think it improved any in the time between his brother’s death and when Johnny left for the Air Force. His father was very nasty and seemed to be abusive. He was never shown hitting anyone, but he did a lot of yelling. Once Johnny was on the way to becoming famous, someone introduced him to drugs. When Johnny was reluctant to take them at first, the man with the drugs said they were fine because Elvis took them too. I hadn’t known before that he had been addicted to drugs. He was shown popping pills many times throughout the movie. I don’t know exactly what he was taking since it wasn’t specifically said. It was shown that some of the pills were prescriptions. Some of what June and her parents did to help get Johnny off the drugs was shared. In addition to the drugs, Johnny also drank a lot. His drinking and drug use did impact his relationships.

There really wasn’t any violence shown in Walk the Line, though Johnny did destroy a dressing room once. The word that rhymes with luck was used once. That, along with the drug use aspect of the movie, is probably what lead the movie being rated PG-13. This isn’t a movie for children. A little bit of humor was added to help lighten the mood in a few spots though the movie remained serious over all. Most of the time, the humor was related to something a character said like how Johnny replied when a prison warden told him not to sing anything that would remind prisoners that they were in jail.

Music obviously played a very important part in Walk the Line. Several shows that were part of tours were shown. Most of the performances that were shown were of Johnny, though Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis were briefly shown, along with a few others. June was part of the tours too, using comedy in her performances. Johnny sort of pushed her into singing with him during one show and eventually they did more songs together. I didn’t recognize all of the songs, though I did enjoy them. Parts of some of the songs that I wasn’t sure I had heard before did sound familiar. I was a bit disappointed that the song A Boy Named Sue didn’t make into the movie since I do like that one and it always makes me laugh. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did all the singing for their characters throughout the movie. They both did an amazing job. There were times in some songs, like Ring of Fire, when Phoenix sounded so much like Cash it was eerie.

The heart of Walk the Line was provided by the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter. The movie didn’t turn all mushy when it was focusing on the love story and I don’t feel that it detracted from other aspects of the movie. Johnny had felt something for June even when he was a child listening to her perform with her family on the radio. She was his favorite in the Carter family. He did seem to be flustered when he first met her backstage. It was clear they felt a connection to each other. They weren’t able to be together since at least one of them, and for a while both of them, were married. They spent a lot of time together doing the tours and eventually started singing together. Performing together was their only chance to be together for a long time. June loved him, but that didn’t make her blind to his flaws. She got very aggravated at his drinking, one time even throwing beer bottles. It seemed like she didn’t realize he was using drugs until a certain event. She did pull back from him at that point, but when he really needed her, she was there for him. June was the driving force that caused Johnny to turn his life around. The movie showed just how much they loved each other.

The acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon was amazing. Phoenix really got a lot of the mannerisms of Cash down, like how he held his guitar or would swing it around on his back. He seemed to become Johnny. Phoenix learned how to play the guitar for the part. I didn’t know that Phoenix could sing before I saw this movie. I was very impressed that he, and Reese Witherspoon, did their own singing. I read that they both went through months of singing lessons before shooting for the movie started. Several years ago, Phoenix actually met Johnny and June because Johnny was a huge fan of the movie Gladiator. I know the movie wasn’t made until after Johnny had died, but at least the planning had started before then since Cash selected Phoenix for the part. I have seen Phoenix in several different roles and I have liked him in all of them. The last newer movie that I saw him in was The Village. I do think this is his best performance to date. I really do think he should be getting a lot of award nominations.

Until seeing Walk the Line, the only things I knew about June Carter were that she was married to Johnny Cash for a long time, she was also a singer, and her family was famous in the country music world. June had been told that her sister was the better singer, so she turned to adding comedy in her act to feel like she was still entertaining people. June was a very strong woman that faced being judged by total strangers because she was divorced. Divorce was very frowned upon in the 1950's. Reese Witherspoon was absolutely amazing in the role of June. In addition to singing, she also learned to play the autoharp, the instrument that June played. Witherspoon has been known for her work in comedies even though she has played in some more serious movies. She was perfect and made June come to life. There was a subtleness to the way she conveyed emotions like the way she reacted when a stranger decided to condemn June for being divorced when she was trying to do some shopping. June was happily chatting with people as she shopped until that woman made that remark. The sparkle left June’s eyes and it was apparent how the comment hurt her. Witherspoon went from being happy to sad and hurt in an instant and the reaction was completely believable. There were other scenes, like when she was sitting her car in a driveway, when she didn’t say a word but was still able to convey so much emotion. This was the best performance I’ve ever seen Witherspoon give. This was one of the best performances of the year, and the only actress that has come close in the movies I’ve seen so far this year is Charlize Theron in North Country. Witherspoon gave a very powerful performance and I think she should be winning some awards for it. I know that some people have been skeptical about Witherspoon having this part, but I have read that June selected her for it before her death.

None of the other characters were in as much of the movie or as developed as Johnny and June were. Ray and his wife - I think her name was Carrie - were only in a few scenes. Ray was not a nice person and seemed to never think anything Johnny did was good enough. He dominated his wife and children. Robert Patrick, most known as the terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and as Agent Doggett in The X-Files, did a really good job with the part. Vivian ended up seeming rather flat and one dimensional. She was really just shown complaining to Johnny about something every time she turned up. First she wanted him to leave Memphis and work for her father because he wasn’t doing too well as a salesman. Once he was successful, she was unhappy about the amount of time he was gone and didn’t want him talking about the tour even when she brought it up first. Vivian just seemed unhappy no matter what Johnny did. Gennifer Goodwin was fine in the part. There just wasn’t much to it. I did read that one of Vivian’s daughters didn’t like the way she was portrayed in the movie. Waylon Payne had a few scenes, including a performance, as Jerry Lee Lewis. He did a good job. Tyler Hilton was all right as Elvis and did seem to resemble him, at least when he was younger.

MAIN CAST

Gennifer Goodwin - Vivian Cash
Tyler Hilton - Elvis
Shelby Lynn - Carrie Cash
Robert Patrick - Ray Cash
Waylon Payne - Jerry Lee Lewis
Joaquin Phoenix - Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon - June Carter

James Mangold - Director

Walk the Line is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon gave Oscar worthy performances making this a must see movie for their fans. I think the movie can be enjoyable for people who weren’t huge Johnny Cash fans.

Reese Witherspoon Reviews
Legally Blonde ~ Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde ~ Sweet Home Alabama ~ Just Like Heaven ~


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