For all of the obvious similarities between last year’s remarkable Ray Charles biopic
and this year’s enthralling rendering of the life of Johnny Cash, there is a glaring difference of approach between Jamie Foxx’s spot-on imitation of Charles and Joaquin Phoenix’s gutsy interpretation of the Man in Black. Joaquin’s trademark stiff shoulders morph into those of country music legend Johnny Cash even if Cash never carried himself with such defensiveness.
Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do their own singing through more songs than you can count, and are so thoroughly convincing as Johnny Cash and June Carter that your imagination speculates on hidden aspects of their histories together. Director James Mangold (
) does a phenomenal job of celebrating the life and hardships of one of country music’s greatest singers with a sincere and powerful movie.
Mangold establishes the magical aura of Johnny Cash in the film’s opening sequence with a reenactment of Cash’s legendary performance inside Folsom Prison. The poor acoustics in the jailhouse accentuate the booming volume of the band as they vamp onstage while waiting for Cash to appear. The bracing sound is authentic and sends the same shivers down your spine that the prisoner audience must’ve felt as they waited for their outlaw hero. The action shifts to a flashback of Cash’s days before his cherished older brother died, in an accident with a circular saw, that led his father Ray (Robert Patrick) to scream that the Devil took the wrong son.
A tour of Air Force duty in Germany finds Johnny buying his first guitar and writing his first song after seeing a movie about Folsom Prison with his military peers. On his return to Arkansas, Cash marries his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) against her family’s wishes before wandering into an audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records where his original song “Folsom Prison Blues” delivers him from obscurity.
Joaquin Phoenix owns the spirit of Johnny Cash for the duration of the well-edited film and expresses Cash’s tortured emotional needs that fueled his best songwriting. It’s a performance built from the inside out and, as such, carries a resonance as deep as Johnny Cash’s dark baritone voice. Johnny Cash lives on.