Although JR Cash’s poor childhood in rural Arkansas is quickly told, Mangold does manage to establish three key elements of his subject’s troubled personality. We discover the impact the tragic death of his beloved older brother had on his life, that his alcoholism was likely hereditary and that his father's lifelong animosity towards him scarred him deeply. “The Devil did this,” Ray Cash (played with devastating meanness by the excellent Robert Patrick) shouts. “He took the wrong son.” And you wonder why he wore black? After a tour of duty with the Army in Germany, Cash returned to the US to marry his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), and raise their daughter. It’s just as Cash is unhappy with the direction his life has taken, and struggling to establish himself as a musician, that the film kicks into life, in an altogether rattling scene that sustains the momentum through to the finale in Fulsom Prison.
When a combination of luck and desperate persistence gets Johnny Cash and his part-time back-up band an audition at Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) legendary Sun Records in Memphis, things don’t go according to plan. The trio pick out an uncomfortable, altogether amateur version of an old gospel standard with Cash yodelling away like coyote. Phillips, unimpressed, asks them if they have anything original for him. With the other two following his lead, and with a nervous cough, Cash sings Folsom Prison Blues, a plaintive country song he’d written when stationed in Germany as a GI. It’s in the process of delivering this sad song about regret, with his dreams of a musical career disappearing over the horizon and an angry wife at home, that Phoenix undergoes a stunning metamorphosis. He shifts his stance a little, addresses the microphone with a jutting chin and grips his guitar with a new fervour. It’s like he hates it, and himself for playing it. The young Cash’s desire to perform and to touch people with music has embarrassed him again, but maybe for the last time. Phoenix starts the song as JR, a broke door-to-door salesman and ends it as Johnny Cash. An immortal.
After signing with Sun, Johnny and the boys set off on a seemingly endless town to town tour of the American south, along with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, driving a caravan of cars filled with amplifiers from town to town, popping amphetamine pills to keep going. Also on the tour is June Carter, one of a famous family of country singers, with she and the intense Cash quickly sparking a mutual attraction. But Johnny is married, and June is recently divorced and unwilling to get involved. Despite his frequent declarations of love, June keeps him at arms-length for years. At its heart, Walk the Line is a love story, as sizzling and passionate on screen as it was in real life. Perhaps his story ends in 1968 because the two stayed devoted to each other for the remaining 35 years of their lives, but Mangold draws out this tangled relationship beautifully, without ever becoming mawkish or sentimental.
Despite being an outstanding musician, Cash was also an adulterer and an addict. To the film’s enormous credit, Mangold doesn’t pull his punches for the sake of audience sympathy. This is entirely fitting for Cash, a man who sang about his troubles and the trouble he caused so directly and so eloquently and so simply. In his autobiography, Chronicles, Bob Dylan paid homage to Johnny Cash and his music, saying that the Man in Black’s throaty growl “was so big, it made the world grow small.” In taking on that voice, and approximating the man who held it, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a startlingly good performance that never once turns into an imitation. He is note-perfect, but the film’s energy and heart come from Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. She positively lights up the screen with every scene, matching Phoenix’s furrowed fervour snarl for snarl. The chemistry between them is palpable, which Mangold uses to fashion an immensely believable and compelling story. Like that startling instant, when Johnny Cash finds his voice, (“steady like a train, sharp like a razor,” as June later described it), this is a film full of riveting thumbnails; a bass guitar with the chords written on the fretboard, the first time Phoenix slings his guitar back on his shoulder, Jerry Lee Lewis’ leopard-skin collars.
Two scenes are particularly memorable, sketching the time and place with a keen eye and heart. An encounter the twice-divorced June has in a rural shop with a sharp-tongued bigot is powerfully written and brilliantly performed. Later, Cash wakes up on a tour bus and in stumbling past his sleeping guitarist Luther Perkins, plucks a cigarette out of his mouth. In real life, just months later, Perkins died in a fire in his Tennessee home, having done the same thing again.
Famously, both Phoenix and Witherspoon sang all the songs and played their own instruments, with the supporting cast playing legendary rock and rollers likewise performing their own music. Mangold employed the talented music producer T-Bone Burnett (who worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to record these performances, uncannily capturing the growling voice and wild mood without ever feeling like karaoke. Although the songs (including Ring of Fire) have gone on to become familiar country standards, Burnett and the cast give them a revitalising new snap and tremendous naturalism, with Witherspoon in particular coming to life when she takes the stage. Phoenix is hugely impressive as Cash, a man often called inimitable, and Mangold stages the many musical performances with energy and meaning. Although the story itself occasionally walks the line between audience-pleasing convention and damn-them-all rebellion, in the end it is the combination of great music and phenomenal performances from both leads that makes it unmissable. It is a fitting tribute to the life and music of an immensely talented, but all too human, cultural icon.