Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon is June Carter Cash in a new film about the lives and love of these American music legends. Alan Silverman has a look at Walk The Line.
For almost 50 years, the rough-hewn "man in black" was an icon of country and rock and the fusion that he helped invent combining the two music genres.
Walk The Line traces the life of Johnny Cash: a kid from rural Arkansas in the Great Economic Depression who grew up with a passion that took him to the heights of stardom, who then nearly lost everything to alcoholism and drug abuse. Through it all, there was his music and Joaquin Phoenix says that was his key to the character.
"I went out and I bought every album that I could and it was interesting to get his early recordings and hear the progression of his music and his evolution ... to hear how an artist kind of develops a persona," Phoenix says. "Often, we see somebody at their final stage and we assume they were always like that; and it was so fascinating to see that evolution and how his music changed. You learn so much about him through his lyrics. He conveys so much with just a few lines. There's such depth to his music. So, obviously, a really big part of it was the music. That, to me, was the gateway into discovering John. I feel like I found the speaking voice through the singing voice and really learned a lot about him through his music."
Phoenix learned to play guitar with Johnny Cash's aggressive style and he sang all of the character's songs in the film, as did Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter Cash, the true love of Johnny Cash's life. Witherspoon had never before performed in front of an audience, but she learned June's sassy stage and singing style.
"It was much harder than I thought it would be. You think you're a good singer when you sing in the car or the shower," Witherspoon says. "You think you sound pretty good until they record your voice and play it back. You don't realize how incredibly incapable you are and what an amazing thing it is to have that kind of talent. I think it's a really inspiring film in that it deals with marriage and relationships very realistically. No one is perfect. Everyone is capable of making pretty tragic mistakes, but, in my experience, life and relationships aren't just about when it's easy. It's the rocky journey that makes it interesting and worthwhile."
Walk The Line is written and directed by James Mangold, who spent seven years bringing it to the screen, working with both Johnny and June until their deaths in 2003. Mangold says they understood from the very beginning that the film would not sugarcoat the tragic side of their story.
"John was such an artist and the music he wrote and the songs he responded to were so dark and interesting that the idea that he'd want his own life buffed to a point where you couldn't recognize him in it ... he was never that voice in the creative process, because he understood the challenges I had in structuring his life (story) and figuring it out," he says. "He said I'd have to get to some dark places. The great, generous thing John said was 'if someone has got to look bad, make it me,' because he really didn't like the kind of late twentieth century model where you could blame all your mistakes on something someone did to you or said to you once. He really felt that 'I'm responsible. The people I've hurt - it's my fault. Please don't make look like I was a helpless victim. I could have done things better."
Walk The Line features Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley; Waylon Payne plays Jerry Lee Lewis; and, as Johnny Cash's lifelong friend Waylon Jennings, Shooter Jennings plays his own father. Much of the film was shot on location in Tennessee and Arkansas.