As promised, here is an early, spoiler-free review of Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon. A friend of mine saw an advance screening at an art-school, but I’ll let her tell it:
Last week I was invited to a screening of Walk the Line, with a writer and director Q&A. I am glad to say the the movie was better than I expected and the Q&A was one of the best I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a bunch).
Let it be known that I’m not a fan of the bio-pic. I always see them, because they are usually about interesting people and I’m always sure that THIS ONE will be the one that isn’t lame like all others. I’m glad to say that, while it did fall into some of the traps that I feel like bio-pics cannot help (flashbacks to childhood trauma, confusion about how much time has passed, on screen text to end the movie: “so and so remained married till the day they died” or whatever), Walk the Line was able to – well – not fall too deep (the flashback was barely a flashback and more of a time-cut, and there were only like 2 lines at the end, as opposed to paragraphs and paragraphs).
The two leads were amazing. Joaquin Pheonix did an incredible job of being Johnny Cash and yet also just being a person, and that’s hard to do when you’re being someone who is idolized enough to, well, have a movie made about him. Even after he becomes famous, the movie was still just about a person.
And I’m not a huge Reese Witherspoon fan, but she did a convincing job as June Carter – the love of Cash’s life and shepherd through his drug-rattled storm. Her energy and wit brought truth to her character.
Oh – and both of them did an amazing job with the singing. They sounded like the real people, and yet, since it was them singing, it appeared incredibly natural, real.
I gotta say – it must have been hard to make a movie about two people falling in love who would spend the rest of their lives together, when this broke up Cash’s first marriage. To make him not look like an all around bad guy AND not make his wife-number-one not look like a psycho AND actually make his falling in love with June seem romantic and not completely trashy must have been a task, but they managed it.
The Q&A was with director and co-writer James Mangold (Copland, Girl Interrupted) and other co-writer Gill Dennis (Return to Oz). Mangold did most of the talking, but he gave good tips, interesting perspectives about the movie, and more gossip and behind the scenes lore than I would dare to repeat.
They both spoke of the time they were fortunate enough to spend with Cash and Carter to get them to sort of “fill in the blanks” left by the many bios and articles that have been written on them. They asked for Cash’s worst memory and his best, and used those to bookend the movie, which maybe what all bio-pics do, but it sounded novel when they mentioned it.
Also, they mentioned the way that they used the music in the film – that they tried to make each song have a purpose in the scene so it wasn’t just a “Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits” video, or like a bad musical (there are good musicals whose songs do have dramatic content, but I digress). And I definitely think that they succeeded with this – the songs do have a purpose and, in fact, are a driving force for the scenes that they are in, so that when the song begins, you’re nodding, saying, “Ex-ACT-ly.”
Mangold gave many humbling tips concerning the role of the director. The one I remember best (probably because it is the one thing that makes me most neurotic, as a director and as a person) is that he said you have to be able to be honest when the actors ask you a question, and if that means saying you don’t know, then SAY “I don’t know” or “Let me get back to you” or “Let’s discuss that.” Also that if your actor(s) haven’t clicked with you by day 3 they are gone, and will most likely not listen to you for the rest of the shoot. Good to know.