In a post-American Recordings landscape, fans of the Man in Black were in for a treat when Walk the Line hit theaters on Nov. 18, 2005. The award-winning film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon in her Oscar-winning role as June Carter, captures a near mythical figure’s ascent from a Dyess, Arkansas farm boy to a global celebrity.
The film’s release came a little over two years after Cash’s passing. He’d long been the sort of beloved artist with devotees outside of country music circles. It’s similar to how non-metalheads dig Motorhead and folks who don’t always turn to the classics love David Bowie. Plus, the sustained popularity of “Ring of Fire” and other timeless hits fueled enough ’50s and ’60s nostalgia to just about guarantee box office success for 20th Century Fox and director James Mangold.
A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph
Cash’s usual pre-fame narrative unfolds throughout the film. Viewers learn about his brother Jack’s tragic passing, his Air Force stint in West Germany and his first wife, Vivian Liberto (played by Ginnifer Goodwin). The screenplay, co-written by Mangold and Gill Dennis, is derived from Cash’s autobiography from the ’70s, Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words, and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography. By basing the film on Cash’s own words, it taught a broader audience about country music history.
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The Nashville music legend’s rise involves enough depressing twists to be a Red Sovine song. It’s a story of both love for a member of the legendary Carter Family and, in its darkest moments, addiction. The up-and-down story ends with Cash rejuvenated by entertaining the prisoners at Folsom and engaged to June.
A Top-Notch Soundtrack
What’s a music-based film without good songs? Just as Sissy Spacek stepped up her game in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Phoenix and Witherspoon sang in character. Established singers played the film’s other legends. Shooter Jennings portrayed his father Waylon Jennings–a role he should consider reprising in future biopics. In addition, Jenny Lewis collaborator Johnathan Rice played Roy Orbison, Tyler Hilton impersonated Elvis Presley and country singer Waylon Payne killed it as Jerry Lee Lewis. They provided covers of their characters’ signature songs, guiding viewers through a musical timeline.
A Talented Cast
Witherspoon unquestionably stole the show, but she wasn’t the only well-casted talent. Veteran actor Robert Patrick and musician Shelby Lynne play Cash’s parents Ray Cash and Carrie Cash, respectively. Future The Walking Dead star Dallas Roberts appears as Sun Records boss Sam Phillips. Actors with musical chops played the Tennessee Three, with the multi-talented Larry Bagby as Marshall Grant and country-punk musician Dan John Miller as Luther Perkins. In an odd twist, the film’s Carl Perkins, Johnny Holiday, plays Luther Perkins–no relation–in the CMT series Sun Records.