“Walk the Line” (20th Century Fox, 2005, 136 minutes), the recent biopic about Johnny Cash, walks a fine line between greatness and imitation. It’s a terrific movie, but following closely on the heels of last year’s phenomenal biopic “Ray,” it feels unfortunately familiar. A young boy grows up in rural poverty, loses his beloved brother in a freak accident, feels lifelong guilt and responsibility for it, finds solace in creating music, falls under the spell of illicit drugs and groupie sex, and ultimately finds salvation through the love of a good woman. Great movies are made of great stories, and this one has it all. But it isn’t receiving the acclaim it probably deserves, because “Ray” did it first and, I think, did it a little bit better.
Still, this is one of the best films of the year (admittedly in a year of disappointing movies). Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who seems born to play the witty, homespun June Carter, deliver top-notch performances. In fact, the film is as much about June Carter as it is about Johnny Cash. I admit I cringed when I heard that Phoenix and Witherspoon would provide their own voices for the songs/but they both sing remarkably well – Phoenix manages Cash’s deep bass bravado with aching emotion, and Witherspoon’s southern accent is delightful without being corny. The theme of redemption is subtle but rings true; framed as a flashback during the concert Cash recorded at Folsom Prison, “Walk the Line” is about breaking free from one’s own captivity, and finding redemption in a partnership with the woman one loves.