Walk The Line stumbles on the same footholds as last year's big musical biopic Ray. That also featured an incandescent central performance (by Jamie Foxx) and described a similar arc: the poor Southern childhood, the accidental death of a much-loved brother, the musical trail-blazing through the 1950s, the slide into drink and drugs, all topped off with closing titles that explain how the central character found redemption and enough gas in the tank to play music for 30 more years. And, just like with Ray, the movie was "helped" in its early stages by the director James Mangold's collaboration with the subject and his wife, June Carter Cash (though neither lived to see its release). The alarm bells ring right there, though, because, however well-intended, the temptation to leniency and special pleading is irresistible.
The movie has a superb opening: Mangold's camera prowls around the bleak exterior of a penitentiary, while the railroad rhythm of bass and drums, quiet at first, builds to a great pulsating crescendo. The inmates clap and stomp along to the beat. The music itself sounds like a caged animal waiting to pounce. This was the scene of Cash's famous gig at Folsom prison in January 1968, and Mangold returns to it at the end of the picture as the centrepiece of Cash's comeback tour. In between he chronicles the peaks and troughs of Cash's life, beginning with his brother's untimely death for which his stern father (Robert Patrick) made him feel guilty.
As a young man he tries out as a door-to-door salesman, marries an almost anonymous woman (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and has kids. All the time he's picking away at his guitar, though it's still huge credit to Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), the Sun Records supremo, who first hears something marketable in Cash's lousy audition. This guy, as the joke has gone, could hardly talk in tune, let alone sing.
Once Cash hits the road with his band, Walk The Line steps up a beat, and Phoenix's stage performance, shoulders hunched with the guitar high on his chest, gathers in authority. Offstage, however, you begin to notice the gloss being laid on quite thickly. As Johnny telephones his wife in post-gig euphoria, we hear his missus at the other end distractedly minding the kids and not properly responding to the news of his latest triumph. Her maternal responsibility is somehow made to look like negligence of her husband's success, whereas it was, indirectly, the thing that made it possible.
The same partiality is detectable once the focus goes fuzzy over the singer's behaviour on the road. One reason why Cash endeared himself to people was his willingness to sing about defeat and failure - about the struggle of loneliness and living outside the law ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die..."). But the conflict in him between the God-fearing man and the roustabout is virtually unexplored. You could blink and miss the groupies who cluster about him, and the consequences of his drug addiction get no more serious than trashing a bathroom. His cultivated jailbird image was a sham: he was locked up three times, for one night each. When he dresses all in black, his record company objects: "You look like you're going to a funeral". "Maybe I am," he replies, but there's not much sense of mortal dread coming off him.
Nonetheless, the story requires Cash to be redeemed, and it's greatly to the film's advantage that his saviour happens to be Reese Witherspoon. As June Carter, Witherspoon has to walk a fairly tricky line herself, between the public front of Southern charm and the private misery of two broken marriages. She does it brilliantly, her face dividing the load: the eyes are all liquid sweetness, while that pointy chin challenges like a drawn dagger. It's exactly the kind of role that could have been sentimentalised, but Witherspoon's expressive mobility makes of Carter a rounded, complex human being. What's more, Carter can sing, write and hold her own against an all-male touring posse that includes Jerry Lee Lewis and a young, snake-hipped fellow named Elvis Presley. It's a performance right up there with her prim little miss in Election.
With two outstanding leads and a handful of great tunes it's hard to see how Walk The Line could fail, and it doesn't, exactly. Its real problem is the form itself. Biopics are to life what pitch-and-putt is to a round of golf: an unsatisfactory approximation. They offer story, but no plot. This is evidenced in the sudden and unexplained reversals of the singer's fortunes. At one point he's portrayed as flat broke, unable to afford even a train ticket; next thing he's buying a huge new house in the woods. There is nearly always a "made-for-TV" whiff around a biopic. What I wanted to know about Cash is how much of a sinner he really was, or else why he believed himself to be one. His songs tell a story that the film can't, or won't, endorse. Half the time Phoenix seems to be playing a man who simply isn't there - mostly the half when he isn't on stage.