All I knew about Johnny Cash before I watched this film was a few of his songs (Ring Of Fire, A Boy Named Sue, Walk The Line) and that he dressed in black. I feel like I know a lot more now but at the same time not necessarily as much as I hoped I would.
This is a biopic that tells the story of Cash’s early life and success, and it particularly focuses on his on/off relationship with the country singer – and writer of his hit “Ring of Fire” – June Carter.
Joaquin Phoenix is superb as a brooding Cash who feels constant guilt for his brother’s death, suffers from drug addiction and struggles with his relationship with his father. Importantly considering the part he’s playing, his vocal performances are spot-on and although you can of course tell it’s not Cash singing, he gets just the right amount of resonance and emotion into his voice. However this effect is slightly spoilt at times by it being noticeable that his live performances are overdubbed with a pre-recorded ‘live’ vocal track. It’s true that the quality of the singing is better this way but you do lose some of the rawness and spontaneity you get with a genuine live performance. That being said overall all the music is very impressive.
With less screen-time Reese Witherspoon is even better in some ways as June Carter, Cash’s main love interest (note Cash is already married). She displays a remarkable range in her acting, ably adding nuance and emotion through both facial expressions and body language. She is also vocally very capable. It is true she doesn’t have to carry the film like Phoenix, but she does very much bring June Carter to life as a real person.
I think it was sensible for the film to keep it’s focus narrow rather than trying to cram in too much but for me it’s just a little too focused on Johnny and June’s relationship. After the opening 20 minutes, you don’t really learn a lot else about Cash apart from this and in particular, the middle section of the film becomes a little bogged down in this way. However their story is told well with genuine affection and is often touching. Cash is painted here as quite a pathetic figure, constantly craving the approval of his father and often descending into a spiral of drink and drug abuse when things don’t go his way. He spends a lot of the movie following after June like a puppy-dog apparently needing her by his side before he can display any kind of mental strength.
A quality biopic with great music and performances, and if you stick with it through the slightly bland middle section, it’s a rewarding one too. 7/10