Released two years after his death, this 2005 biopic of the Man in Black (Joaquin Phoenix) is more than just a Johnny Cash-in or answer to a pub quiz question about Reese Witherspoon winning an Oscar.
Spanning his childhood to his adultery, Cash’s story walks the usual music movie line but does so with such strong performances from Reese With-her-spoon and Joaquin Phoenix with his guitar that you’ll forgive its crowbarred song references, including (but not limited to) a conspicuously placed sign near a phone that reads: “Ring in case of fire.”
Even more glaring is the way Cash’s first wife (Zootropolis‘ Ginnifer Goodwin), like the wife in Houdini and pretty much every other wife in a biopic, speaks exclusively in outrage at her husband’s career as a performer despite having knowingly married a performer. This helps ease the terms of his infidelity but does something of a disservice to both the audience and the real Vivian Cash, who’d be within her rights to make like a boy and sue.
That we have any affection for the man in light of his behaviour is testament to a typically nuanced portrayal by Phoenix, who sings Cash’s poetic, existential songs with uncanny vocal accuracy. Scenes in which he mucks around with Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) are also fun, but the heart comes from his and June’s (Witherspoon) touching yet fraught friendship, whose ups and downs mirror the locomotive sound of Johnny’s music (“We’d play fast if we could!”).
Bookended by the famous Folsom Prison concert, James Mangold’s (The Wolverine, Logan) film is sympathetic in its blues without being fulsome in its praise.