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WALK THE LINE (review)

WALK THE LINE
Written by Gill Denis and James Mangold / Directed by James Mangold / Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Ginnifer Goodwin

I find it quite peculiar that biopics about musicians all seem to contain variations on the same plot points. Musicians have troubled childhoods, often including traumatic experiences and/or stern upbringings, that will likely cross the line into abusive. Musicians get married and then inevitably neglect their spouses and cheat on them with groupies post getting discovered and making something of a name for themselves. And it wouldn’t be a movie about a successful musician if said musician didn’t get into a full-on battle with drugs and alcohol. I can accept that these issues might be typical of a musician’s influential background, and the industry that exploits their talents by running them around the world, away from their families. What gets me is that these stories aren’t stories at all but real lives. There are probably more people out there going through exactly what you are and you don’t even know it. The similarities may be seemingly unavoidable but the film must differentiate itself to make it’s own name. The emphasis must then be placed on two things – the performances of the lead actors and of course, the music. In the case of Johnny Cash biopic, WALK THE LINE, director James Mangold takes it one step further and crafts a destiny driven love story, set against the backdrop of the familiar rise and fall of a rock star.

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The larger force at work gets started early for Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) as Johnny becomes enamored with June upon hearing her sing on the radio when he is just a boy. His discovery is innocent but the influence will be lasting as the sound of her voice inspires desire inside of him to have the same opportunities, and the calm that her voice brings to his impoverished and troubled childhood will be something he searches for for decades to come. When the two finally do meet, the calm returns to him immediately and their chemistry is unmistakably natural. As they sneak glances when the other isn’t looking, they look affected without understanding why. The insight comes the first time the two take the stage together. They speak a language that no one else can discern; only the language isn’t spoken, it’s sung.

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Watching two people fall in love on stage and through song, while one or the other alternates fighting against it, energizes the performances. Their infatuation and excitement invigorates their voices and faces, inspiring anticipation in both the onscreen audiences, and those in the multiplexes as we anxiously watch to see where this will lead. Having Phoenix and Witherspoon sing their own parts only deepens the performances’ authenticity. It removes the detachment from the character one would ordinarily experience while watching with the constant awareness of that voice not being from that body. It doesn’t hurt that they both sound fantastic too.

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As June, Witherspoon’s exuberance is infectious. She demonstrates a strength in vulnerable times that is usually masked by a giant smile. Phoenix plays Johnny as a naïve genius, unaware of how his decisions affect those around him. He very rarely looks determined or calculated; instead he is impulsive and organic. And certainly he can brood with the best. Together, their connection is palpable. Amidst drug detox, ballooning egos and the collapse of marriages, the pull between them remains intact and retains its hold on their hearts. The happiness they could have and both deserve is always just out of reach, and you will want so much for them to have it that you will not want the credits to roll. And though you may wish they could keep on singing for you, it is still a relief that they can finally drop the act.

4 sheep

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