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Man in black and white

November 18, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

BASED on Johnny Cash's books "Man in Black" and "Cash: The Autobiography," and developed over a period of seven years with the help of Cash and June Carter Cash, James Mangold's "Walk the Line" toes it pretty well. Named for one of Cash's biggest hits, it also describes the linear progression of the story, which moves briskly from milestone to milestone, pausing along the way to photograph the monumental moments in the life of the artist, and more or less making a moral beeline for redemption.

Johnny Cash's work requires no explanation or justification, but pop icon biopics do. So we get the artistic creation myth as moral allegory: a wayward soul saved by the true love of a good woman.

From hardscrabble beginnings and early trauma to sudden fame, infidelity, addiction and romantic salvation, the movie is less an uncharted journey than a 2 p.m. bus tour of a music industry legend. But like an expert guide, Mangold shepherds the story with enough grace, energy and skill to make it worthwhile.

Like most examples of the genre, "Walk the Line" is an actors' movie -- the kind that requires chimeric transformations and the acquisition of new, impressive skills. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do first-rate work -- they sing, they twang, they play new-to-them instruments, they crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat it's a wonder they don't burst into flames. Theirs are the kinds of performances the Academy Awards live to reward, comprising as they do a sort of acting decathlon. But the best thing about Phoenix and Witherspoon is their emotional connection, which carries the movie and transcends the material.

Dark and brooding, with a scar like a badge and eyes that seem to gradate from light to onyx as the situation requires, Phoenix fills the screen with a profound, enveloping darkness that beckons like a black sea. Handling his guitar with a force that's both sexual and violent, he suggests an inner tension the script demurs from drawing out too far, presumably for fear of making its hero unlikable. Instead it places much of the burden of negativity on Cash's father, Ray (Robert Patrick), and his first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), who appear mainly to provide Cash with polar axes of disapproval. It seems pointless to plead a special case for Cash, though, who is already beloved by millions. But the movie dredges up the darker moments and so feels compelled to redress them.

From the start, we learn that Cash's love for June Carter, member of the legendary Carter family, predated his love for his first wife by at least a decade. Cash listened to June on the radio as a little boy, at least until his father invariably made him turn the damn thing off. If his father was hard on him then, he withdrew his affection for good after the death of his older son, Jack, an accident he blamed on Cash, then called J.R.

A quick jaunt through the early years reveals some interesting tidbits: Cash nursed his fan's crush on June while in the Air Force, reading music magazines. His interest in Folsom Prison, and his writing of "Folsom Prison Blues," was sparked by a movie he saw while he was in the service. Cash picked up his first guitar while stationed in Germany, and before his tour of duty was up, he'd written one of his most iconic songs. (Movies about artists tend to liken the process of artistic creation to a sort of calm puttering around in the kitchen, and the lyrics flow from Cash in an uninterrupted line.)

Marrying Vivian upon his return from the Air Force, he moved to Memphis and began an unsuccessful career as a door-to-door salesman, while singing gospel tunes in his free time with his makeshift band, the Tennessee Two. A chance encounter with Sam Phillips (the eerily excellent Dallas Roberts) led to a recording contract and wild tours through the South along with other Sun Records prodigies Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice) and Carter.

In one of the funniest scenes, Cash is inducted in the ways of junkiedom by a tour-mate, who hits him with the mother of all pressure tactics: "Elvis takes them." From there, Phoenix spends much of the film bathed in sweat, jonesing, in more or less equal measure, for his pills and Carter, as his star rises and his marriage disintegrates.

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