Rhythm set by strong performances in ‘Walk the Line’

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Hollywood has fallen in love with the biopic. After the movie “Ray,” and the performance given by its star Jamie Foxx, the bar for a Hollywood biopic has been raised.

In “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon reach levels of personification that more than justifies making the biopic that could also land one or both of them an Academy Award.

Adjectives in reviews are often exploited. Exhilarating, electrifying and amazing are how many films and its stars’ performances are described. It becomes more difficult to convey similar feelings about actors and movies that truly deserve the praise.

Phoenix and Witherspoon as “the legend in black” Johnny Cash and wife, country- music star June Carter Cash are in fact amazing. Like Foxx in “Ray,” Phoenix and Witherspoon seem to channel the people they portray.

Veteran actors, Phoenix starred in the mega-hit “Gladiator” and Witherspoon in the “Legally Blonde” franchise, and both were expected to give solid performances given the subject matter playing country music legends. Although few would have predicted that the stars would each reach the rarified air of stellar performances.

Anger and excitement are emotions that any actor can convey. Passion and desire are more difficult. The first time Phoenix sings the Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues” for Sun Records executive Sam Phillips, played coolly by Dallas Roberts, it is not his singing or the song that make the moment. It is Phoenix’s mannerism. He is young, hungry and has a story to tell.

Cash, a married man, pursues Carter, but she refuses his advances until he cleans up his drug-abusing, womanizing ways. The film could have been renamed the “Cash Chase Carter Story,” but that it may have sent the wrong message to moviegoers.

Witherspoon, a true southerner, was more than believable as Carter, she is lovable. Playing muse and provocateur, Witherspoon settles comfortably into her role as the virginal Carter. She sings with energy and her stage presence during the concert scenes feels like Witherspoon missed or may have found a new calling.

However, if there is an inconsistency in “Walk The Line” it is the obvious attempts to preserve Carter’s legacy. Witherspoon should not be blamed for the outright attempt to paint the woman who co-wrote “Ring of Fire” as a complete and total innocent.

Performances aside, biopics generally fall into three catergories: horrible, good or great. “Walk The Line” overall is good despite its stellar performances. The film focuses on the Cash/Carter plot and interweaves the infamous Cash history fans know and others have paid to see. Greatness could have been achieved if the writers had chosen to show more of the Cash the world did not know, and given moviegoers an unvarnished Carter.

Darren Dickerson can be reached at ane@sundial.csun.edu.