As biopics go, this one is near the top, a sprawling, textured story of fame, fall, passion and redemption that can’t avoid cliche’ but never nears cheezy.
Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t embody Johnny Cash so much as incorporate him into his own personality. His performance feels roots deep rather than technically proficient (see Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in The Man in the Moon for an example of the latter), enhancing your investment in Cash’s plight. Phoenix does all his own singing and his vocals are deeper and more frenetic than those of Cash (his live version of “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom Prison is more fevered and angry than Cash’s performance), but they feel real, especially when matched with Reese Witherspoon’s brassy bid as June Carter. James Mangold’s film is ostensibly the love story of Cash and Carter, but his attention to the music is the glue to the picture. The supporting players in the roles of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis are all musicians also doing their own singing. And the scene of Cash’s audition is notable not only for the tension and the dissertation on what goes into music people want to listen to, but for the riveting turn of Dallas Roberts as producer Sam Phillips. Talk about making the most of your one scene.
If there are weaknesses, one is self-inflicted and one is a related injury. Cash’s demons stem from the childhood trauma of his brother’s death, after which he felt unworthy and guilty. His father (Robert Patric) didn’t help when immediately after the funeral, he yelled at a grieving little boy, “he took the wrong son!” Now, perhaps this happened. But even if it did, the screenwriter has to jettison historical accuracy for good sense. It’s too incredible, too jarring, to believe. Worse, it became the centerpiece joke of the Walk the Line spoof, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
The effect is much like that of Austin Powers on the prior James Bond films, changing them in your mind from occasionally fun and campy to wholly ridiculous. Another nit is the unfair treatment of Cash’s first wife, who is portrayed as so shrill and shrewish it feels unfair.