'Walk the Line' is this year's 'Ray'

JIM SLOTEK - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:15 AM ET

PLOT: The life of country singer Johnny Cash is followed from his childhood, to his rockabilly Sun Records days with Elvis and Jerry Lee, to his meltdown with pills and his redemptive marriage to June Carter.

There may not be room at the podium for all the ghosts with the number of biopics of deceased celebrities that have been tagged as can't-miss Oscar bait.

That would be Capote (about Truman Capote), Good Night, And Good Luck (Edward R. Murrow) and the Johnny Cash/June Carter biopic Walk The Line.

Of the three, Walk The Line is most like last year's trendsetter Ray, for good and for bad. Like Ray, Walk The Line is exuberant entertainment with great music, some sharp dialogue and surprising performances, in this case by two underrated actors -- Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

Walk The Line is also like Ray in that it is a cookie-cutter biopic in its presentation (unlike its two competitors, which played around with the genre much more creatively).

Walk The Line starts at a point in Cash's life -- nervously prepping for his famous Folsom Prison concert -- and then steps into the wayback machine for a chronologically-ordered tour through the life of the Man In Black.

We follow Cash from cotton-farmer's son haunted by a family tragedy and beset by a disapproving pappy (Robert Patrick), to soldier, to young, unhappily married man with a dream of becoming a country singer, to overnight rockabilly sensation, hanging and touring with Sun Records pals like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis.

And then there's the love story and redemption tale. It says something about the complexity of Johnny Cash -- whose career transcended the straitjacket of country and whose spirit was stamped on everything he sang -- that Phoenix doesn't quite find him until he takes him onstage. And the iconic love story between Cash and June Carter doesn't seem quite real until both are onstage together. (Witherspoon displays arguably the best chops in the movie, practically tapping a Hibernia well of "spunk" portraying the Black Sheep Carter girl).

But when those pieces come together, Walk The Line is impressive. Witherspoon and Phoenix do a remarkable job with the vocals, adeptly aided by legendary roots producer T-Bone Burnett, and mesh onstage.

Offstage? Johnny beat an addiction to pills before marrying June. This represents the main non-musical dramatic arc in Walk The Line, and it calls for a lot o' sweatin', slurrin' and hollerin' on Phoenix's part. The message is that the love of a good woman, and her family, conquers all. (Less is made of the religious experience that is also said to have inspired his sobriety.)

So it's not a masterpiece. But Walk The Line's flaws are practically buried by its strengths.

It's a crowd-pleaser, one you can't walk out of feeling cheated.

BOTTOM LINE: Not a work of art, but a pure crowd-pleaser. By-the-numbers biopic manages to overcome its formulaic approach by dint of its tremendous musicality (arranged by T-Bone Burnett and ably sung by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon) and likability of its leads.

(This film is rated PG)


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