It’s JR Cash’s first big moment. Dressed in black, auditioning for record exec Sam Phillips, he launches into AN Other song about God. Stopped after a minute because “Gospel doesn’t sell”, a taken aback Cash mumbles, “I’ve got some songs I wrote while I was in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?”
“No,” replies Phillips.
“I do,” says Cash, before launching into ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (“I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die”). It’s a typical moment from the Man In Black: confused, confrontational, honest and, as with most of Walk The Line, spine-tinglingly affecting.
The first chord is struck in 1968 at Folsom Prison. A baying throng of rapists and murderers heave with anticipation. A riff is licked and the prison erupts. It’s a toe-tapping start. Yet Cash is offstage – sweating, brooding, silent – having never fully emerged from the dark cloud of his youth. Poet to the underprivileged and the incarcerated, yet slave to the big three of rock’n’roll (drugs, groupies, shades) Cash, and muse Carter, lived a fascinating, biopic-ripe life.
And many actors would have baulked at jumping into such a ring of fire, Cash’n’Carter being such a great love story – longing, hurt... rewarded. Yet, playing and singing every single note, Phoenix and Witherspoon somehow, wonderfully, turn in sincere, throat-lumping portrayals. The pair are vocally assured (sure, Phoenix lacks Cash’s vocal richness, but his deep larynxing never galls) and best when sharing a bedroom or a stage. Witness, for instance, Witherspoon’s on-the-twirl transformation from sad-sack every-dayer to “How y’all doing?” act and you’ll struggle to think of a better female lead this year.
With their romance so aching, the couple turn Cash’s first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) into a passionless pantomime villain, while a biopic-by-numbers middle eight drags. Still, director James Mangold deserves credit for pulling us through to an absurdly involving last hour (Carter/Cash duetting on Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’; Cash with his sacks of drugs and Pete Doherty-style meltdown; the live shows’ iridescent energy). No Man In Black on your iPod? That’s sure to change...
At a pills’n’booze Thanksgiving dinner, Cash Sr reduces his son to a “big old empty house, children you never see... nothing”. He’s slamming the simmering side of Cash – the one we see the most – Johnny without June, maestro without muse, Phoenix without Witherspoon. But, as is always the way with car crash rock’n’rollers, it’s also the magnetic side. Cash fan or just cashing in, Walk The Line focuses on not only the country class hero, but also his inspirations: sex, drugs, murder, salvation, depression and, above all, love.