During the last Oscar ceremony, Jon Stewart cheekily referred to Walk the Line as “Ray with white people.” Like all successful humor, the joke has an element of truth to it. There are significant parallels between the two films and the lives of the men at the center of their stories.
Both men were portrayed as genre-bending pioneers of music, although Ray emphasizes this point far more. Both men are shaped by the death of a brother during their childhood and struggled with addictions after achieving their fame. And, oddly enough, both were involved with their film biographies at the time of their death. I think if I were a music legend, I’d stay far away from any biopics about me. Statistically, it sounds rather unhealthy.
Most strikingly, both films also feature a scene from early in their respective subject’s life, in which both Ray Charles and Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) are auditioning for their first big break and both are urged to stop imitating other people’s music and play in their own style.
Structurally, Walk the Line is simpler and more linear, starting with Cash at his famous Folsom Prison concert and then flashing back to his childhood before proceeding from there in a straightforward fashion. These early scenes detail a strained and acrimonious relationship between young J. R. Cash (Ridge Canipe) and his father, Ray (Robert Patrick), which bears little resemblance to Johnny Cash’s life, at least according to the autobiography upon which the film was partly based. Ray and J. R. were not close but the hostility shown here on Ray’s part is mostly an invention of the screenwriters.
The main thrust of the film details the on-again, off-again, on-again relationship between Johnny and his eventual wife, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), scion of the Carter family, who were to country music what the Kennedys used to be to Democratic Party politics. We see Cash pursue and obsess over her through her two previous marriages while she experiences a simultaneous attraction/repulsion toward this talented but troubled and self-destructive man. In a lot of ways, June Carter is driving force behind the narrative, since it was her decision for her family to intervene and help Cash overcome his addictions. Throughout the latter part of the story, Cash is more or less along for the ride.
I think the most questionable narrative choice in this film, other than imposing Hollywood soap opera onto Cash’s early life, was to end the film on Johnny’s onstage marriage proposal to June in 1968. This fairy tale ending to the bumpy road that preceded it feels somewhat unearned. You get the impression that Johnny married June and everyone lived happily ever after. This oversimplifies Cash’s climb back and seems to lay most of the credit in June Carter’s lap.
The performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are standout achievements, especially considering their fearless decision to do their own singing. It’s one thing to put your singing voice out there if your characters were fictitious, but when the person is not only really but as famous and stylistically distinctive as Johnny Cash, that takes some serious cajones. Ironically, it was only during the song that inspired the title of this film, “I Walk the Line,” that Phoenix’s voice doesn’t sound “close enough” to Cash to be believable.
I don’t think the film integrates the music into the narrative as well as Ray did and structurally suffers from ending the story too early, but Walk the Line is definitely worth seeing for the performances alone.