Monday, November 28, 2005

Walking the line to redemption

Few films meet expectations. Even fewer exceed them.

But the wonderful thing about "Walk The Line," James Mangold's new biopic of country/rock singer Johnny Cash, is that the film soars high and far, up to that special place that a precious few films reach.

Not that this movie is a modern day "Citizen Kane." But it glows with a fire that burns as brightly as Cash's talent.

The film focuses on the rise and fall of the legendary country/rockabilly singer Cash, played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix. Raised dirt poor, Cash overcomes the cotton field and makes it to Memphis. It is here that he catches the ear of legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips. And it is here that a star is born.

Cash is haunted by both unseen and tangible demons. The tragic death of his brother. The distant father who blames him for the death. The religious mother. The overbearing wife.

Cash hits the big time with Phillips. He begins touring with all of the rockabilly Memphis legends --- Jerry Lee "Killer" Lewis and Elvis included. But his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants him home.

Meanwhile Cash becomes infatuated with another singer on the tour, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). His love for June burns, well, like a ring of fire. It builds until it flames out of control.

They make beautiful music together onstage. But June doesn't want anything else. Cash can't take it. He starts boozing. He pops amphetamines.

He loses his wife. He loses his money. He loses control.

One Thanksgiving he hits rock bottom. But June is there. She nurses him back to health. Johnny finds Jesus. He dries out. He goes back to work.

Of all places, he finds redemption at Folsom Prison. And, inevitably, in June's arms.

The remarkable thing about "Walk the Line" is that the movie presents a familiar story so well that it seems fresh. As if Cash's life were a blank canvas and Mangold and the actors provide the brush strokes and the colors.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, which adds a healthy dose of realism to the mix. One only wishes there was a little more of it to go along with the finely crafted story.

Go see this movie. Savor every moment.

It is as if somewhere in Cash's redemption lies the possibility that dreams can come true. A corny thought, yes. But a comforting one, too.

"Walk The Line" is rated PG-13.

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