“You wear black ‘cause you can’t find anything else to wear? You found your sound ‘cause you can’t play no better? You just tried to kiss me because “it just happened?” You should try take credit for something every once in a while, John.”
—June Carter via Reese Witherspoon
Time has not been kind to Johnny and June.
Actually, I should be clearer: Time has not been kind to Walk the Line, which happens to be one particular telling of the story of Johnny and June; particularly, how they became Johnny and June.
This has very little to do with the music, which remains as vital, as daring, and as antagonistic as ever. Songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Walk the Line”, twisted love songs fraught with violently passionate imagery, absolutely stand the test of time. There is simply no generation that can profess to be numb to the desperate connotations of songs such as those. On the flipside, there are songs like “Folsom Prison Blues”, songs that are even enough today to inspire double-takes due to their frank nature and nihilistic worldview. Even now, at a time when so-called “emo kids” run rampant and everybody’s singing about their feelings, John Cash would live up to his nickname and his choice of couture.
Walk the Line‘s showing age is no fault of the players involved, either—Reese Witherspoon’s oscar nod is well-deserved, as she tweaks the reformed country bumpkin accent she picked up in Sweet Home Alabama into a full-on drawl and puts on a clinic in how to be adorable without being weak. And Joaquin Phoenix? He is perhaps even more deserving than Witherspoon. Phoenix slips on the mighty big black shoes with a grace that perhaps no one else could have mustered; when he speaks in Cash’s slow, stilted drawl, when he broods in his bedroom with his guitar, and when you see him kick in the floodlights and fall all over the stage under the influence of a massive amount of substances, you start to think that you’re seeing the real thing. The set pieces are authentic, and the on-screen chemistry is wonderful.
In fact, there are so many positive aspects to Walk the Line that the empty feeling you have when the movie ends is utterly shocking.
It’s shocking because you realize, once the film has ended, that while you never regretted your decision to dedicate yourself to this “Extended Cut” of a biopic for two and a half hours, you were never so interested in it that everything else disappeared. The actors are wonderful, the history of it is engaging, but it never quite reaches the level of “magical” that one expects a story of this caliber to reach. This extended version of Walk the Line is always interesting, sometimes even fascinating, but never fascinating to the point where you might not hear the fire alarm if it went off.
There are a few reasons that might explain away the lack of magic felt when watching Walk the Line these days, not least of which is its age. The original film was released in a time when the deaths of John and June still loomed large in many peoples’ minds; the music video of John’s rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” achieved a timeless sort of resonance once that happened, as viewing it felt even more like watching Cash die before our eyes. The story of a time when he was truly alive, a time when he was still in the process of discovering music and love and life rather than being forced to reflect on it was the perfect juxtaposition to “Hurt”, a beautiful coda that reinforced the way that the worst in his life became the best, thanks to June. Crass as it seems to say, the mere fact that years have passed since then, that the story doesn’t feel as timely as it once did, surely hurts our perception of it.
With the objectivity that time brings, we are forced to see just how accurate June’s observation quoted above happens to be; Johnny Cash never quite feels in control; it’s as if he is being moved by forces other than his own. His convictions are borrowed from others, and his motivations rarely come from within. Whether it’s June’s forceful-but-loving rehab or the letters from prison that motivate him toward his crowning concert moment, he only seems to find himself through the coaxing of others. It’s hard, no matter who the protagonist is, to root for someone who can’t seem to find motivation within himself.
The third issue is a technical one—a longer movie does not always make for a better movie. Despite the fact that the scene in which Vivian walks in on Johnny strumming and singing through “Cry, Cry, Cry” and telling him “That’s a mean song” is a fantastic one, both funny and foreboding, much of the material added to Walk the Line used to assemble this “Extended Cut” is largely unnecessary. In fact, the most significant of the added portions are things that fans of the movie have already seen, via the deleted scenes presented in the previous collector’s edition of the movie.
Sure, it’s nice to see them in their original context, but very few of them shed any new light on the story; they only serve to lengthen the experience. Add to this the fact that most of the second-disc extras, including the commentaries and documentaries, were also previously released on other DVD versions of the film, and this “Extended Cut” starts to feel suspiciously light on extras. Making the viewer feel gypped out of new material is not a sure way to enhance that viewer’s experience, especially when the experience lasts as long as this one does.
Given all of these drawbacks, not only does Walk the Line seem to have lost some of its impact, thanks to the new edits and the years removed from its original release, but the DVD package that it is a part of seems decidedly skimpy. It’s not that there aren’t all kinds of extras on it, it’s more a matter that the audience who would be most interested in those extras will already have most of them. Perhaps the timing will need to be better, perhaps the producers will need to find new commentaries for the extras, but whatever the case, the next DVD release of Walk the Line (and let’s not kid ourselves: there will be a next one) will need something far more than this particular “Extended Cut” edition has to offer.