DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Walk the Line (2005) Collectors’ Edition

Unlike the Ray Charles biopic, the lead actors actually perform all the songs in the Johnny Cash film

Published on March 15, 2006

Walk the Line (2005) Collectors’ Edition
Walk the Line (2005) – Collectors’ Edition 2 DVD set

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix; Reese Witherspoon
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Video: 2:39:1 enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Languages: English, Spanish, and French
Subtitles: English; Spanish
Extra Features:  Audio Commentary by co-writer and Director James Mangold, More of the Man in Black: 10 Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer;  Disc 2: Extended music sequences featuring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon: Rock and Roll Ruby, Jackson, and Cocaine Blues; Celebrating the Man in Black: The Making of Walk the Line, incl. interviews with Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Kid Rock and more; Folsom, Cash & the Comeback featurette (on the legendary concert at Folsom Prison); Ring of Fire featurette: The Passion of Johnny and June
Length: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: *****

Early in his career, country music legend Johnny Cash – a man who wrote and sang about heartbreak and loss – had two driving passions: performing his music and the love of June Carter. Both remained at a fever pitch throughout his long and at times turbulent life.

Fans of The Man in Black (as he was affectionately known), his music, and the Carter family will revel in Walk the Line, which focuses on Cash’s early career.  The movie is directed by James Mangold.  Mangold, co-writer Gill Dennis, and music producer T-Bone Burnett present a musical treasure that honors the special bond Cash and his wife June Carter shared on stage, in their song writing and personal lives.

Recognizing the grand scope of Mangold’s  artistic vision for Walk the Line brought a new appreciation for the film.  Joaquin Phoenix (Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (Carter) – Academy Award winner Best Actress 2006 for her role in the film – plunge themselves into their respective roles, providing superior vocal performances that escalate the recreation of the story.  Yet Mangold and his crew offer Cash fans much more: insightful writing, careful direction, and a uniquely photographed motion picture – camera placement is consistently right up on stage with the musicians, giving the movie an intimate feel.

During my first viewing of the film, I entered the theater anticipating musical excellence equivalent to the previous year’s biopic, Ray, but left noting a key difference.  Unlike Jamie Foxx, who played Ray Charles brilliantly without contributing his own vocals,  in this film Phoenix and Witherspoon sing each and every bit of the Cash/Carter songs themselves with conviction and strength.

As Phoenix saunters behind the microphone, belting out the Cash hit “Get  Rhythm” I gasped with excitement.  This dedicated actor stood in the  shoes of a musical legend, and rather than solely mimicking his voice or style (think Gary Busey in the Buddy Holly story) actually sang the tune by inserting his own interpretation.  Yes, it was Cash’s song, but during his time on screen as a singer, this was Joaquin Phoenix’s impressive, at times rough-sounding voice carrying the show.  Witherspoon’s  fluid, mellifluous tone made the couple’s many vocal duets a real treat -both are actors first, perhaps until they took on these roles.  (Burnett’s soundtrack, featuring these talented new singers, is another bonus)

Such startling, inspired art does not happen ovenight.  In the DVD commentary supplied by Mangold, viewers learn the making of Walk the Line has a long history. The veteran director  first came up with the idea for the film in 1996, later offering the role of Johnny Cash to Joaquin Phoenix in 2001 upon the condition that the earnest actor learn how to play guitar in order to land the role. Four years later when filming had begun, Phoenix arrived ready to pluck his way into the lead role.  And that he did:  the emotional vulnerability this talented artist exhibits, a sense that he is willing to invest himself in every possible manner into the role of troubled rock star Cash, continues like a fast freight train throughout the film.

Witherspoon’s presence beside her brazen co-star Phoenix, her charming demeanor and wonderful voice, heightens this familiar story line of a man  pursuing his true love.   Mangold reveals on the audio commentary that during production of the film Johnny Cash and June Carter shared many of their intimate moments – small gestures of affection John made towards June – with the director. Indeed, truth can be a positive storytelling technique.   Reese Witherspoon’s graceful and exceedingly prepared  portrayal of June Carter make these delicate and romantic scenes effective.

Viewers may find it interesting that the musician/actor cast of Walk the Line gathered three months ahead of time in the studio to perform the songs from the film with the same level of preparation recording artists would.  In other words, all of the riveting, spot-on vocals bursting from this soundtrack were no accident.

Musical director T. Bone Burnett deserves credit here. His assembly of first-rate performances, some from accomplished musicians and others from newcomers Phoenix and Witherspoon, transcends the film from a standard telling of a pop star’s troubled journey seeking fame and love to a concert-rich movie filled with outstanding and original vocal performances. It’s hard to pick a favorite scene – perhaps Phoenix and Witherspoon as the then-unmarried duo singing Time’s a  Wastin’ (she blushes and runs off stage after Cash can’t contain himself and kisses her during the performance).

Walk the Line takes Cash fans right up to the place they most want to be:  the heart of soulful, deeply felt music – the music created by two  people who spent a great deal of their lives genuinely caring for each other. This Collectors’ edition provides their fans with an array of interesting background information and bonus musical performances. Witherspoon and Phoenix sizzle in their duet of “Jackson,” and Phoenix offers his fan base two other glimpses of his recently acquired musical talent with renditions of Rock and Roll Ruby and Cocaine Blues.

Is the assortment of extras–including a review of making the film, the story of Cash’s historic Folsom prison concert, and a feature about John and June– worthwhile viewing?  The answer for music fans, particularly Cash’s,  is a resounding yes.   A recurring theme that runs through these featurettes is the positive effect Cash and Carter left on friends and fellow musicians.  Many testify to the integrity of the Man in Black; Kris Kristofferson calls him Abe Lincoln with a wild side.  Biographers talk about aspects of Cash’s personality that separated him from musical stars of today, namely that he and Carter showed a genuine concern for their fan base. Viewers can see evidence of this from the way the singer immersed himself in his concerts for prison inmates over the years.

The stream of praise directed at both Cash and Carter in these DVD featurettes may seem excessive; however, either relative newcomers to their music or longtime fans will appreciate such a sincere tribute to one of country music’s most endearing couples.

– Jim Fasulo



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