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Walk the Line: Collector's Edition

A history of American music wouldn't merely be incomplete without Johnny Cash — it probably wouldn't make any sense. One of the few genre-crossing artists who absorbed and contributed to the full range of American popular music in the latter half of the 20th century, his scope has been matched by few others; in fact, only Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan could be described as his peers. Cash arrived at the right time, the mid-'50s, at a point when our current pop genres were gaining a semblance of definition, like the topography of a continent in the midst of rapid glacial recession. Assisted by the popular dissemination of radio, as well as touring variety-shows and a burgeoning recording industry, audiences began to form specific tastes in music. And, to a large degree, the audience was defined by a brand-new demographic — the Teenager, who emerged in the postwar boom with newfound freedoms and expendable cash, and with such undeniable force that a young and controversial Elvis Presley wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show mere months after the host declared he would never appear at all. Born from the same Memphis recording studio that launched the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Perkins (and thus part of the "Million Dollar Quartet"), Cash was all but assured of his legend, well before his decades-long recording career forged it. Nonetheless, while considered a country artist, he never quite fit into the Nashville mainstream, or any single genre. He would eventually be hailed as everything from a classic blues lyricist to the godfather of gangsta rap — after all, long before NWA or Tupac, he sang of shooting a man "just to watch him die." But in the end, he was remembered simply as "the man in black," which isn't a whole lot to go on if you're preparing a major Hollywood biopic.

James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005), based in part on Johnny Cash's own autobiography, covers Cash's story from his early years to his life's most redeeming event, his marriage to June Carter in 1968. Born into a working-class farm family in Arkansas during the Depression, young J.R. Cash (his parents never could agree on a proper first name) forms a close bond with his older brother Jack, who plans someday to be a preacher, while J.R.'s talents appear to be musical in nature. Their stern father Ray (Robert Patrick) is far more attached to his older son — a point made clear when Jack dies in an accident, causing J.R. to live with both a lifelong sense of guilt and his dad's long-standing disapproval. Enlisting in the Air Force for a stint in Germany, J.R. adopts the name "John," since the military won't accept initials as a name, and while overseas develops his talent. Returning to the States a few years later, he relocates with his wife Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin) to Memphis, where he takes odd jobs and begins exploring a musical career. He earns a break with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, setting aside Gospel music for his own compositions, including "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Cry, Cry, Cry." However, success puts his marriage to Viv at risk — matters not helped by his growing relationship with recent divorcée June Carter, a member of the wholesome Carter Family, America's "first family of country music."

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The fact that both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon earned Academy Award nominations for Walk the Line, but that the film itself was passed over for Best Picture consideration, raised some eyebrows — if anything can be faulted for such, it's likely because each one of the 2005 Best Picture contenders offered some sort of socio-political commentary, which the Academy gravitated towards at the end of the year. Nonetheless, the film wasn't helped by Ray (2004), the Ray Charles biopic that dominated the previous awards season and earned Jamie Foxx the Best Actor hardware. Accolades aside, the Oscars is all about show business, where sentiment is generally overruled by the risk of appearing repetitious. Had rights issues not held up the project for several years, Walk the Line might have arrived in a more favorable climate, although it's able to stand on its own merits. Fundamentally, director/co-writer James Mangold's film hopes to decipher the Johnny Cash mystique, even if it doesn't always glorify it. Here, the man in black isn't always a dynamic figure. At times he's remarkably simple and common, sometimes enjoying simple pleasures, but also capable of drunkeness and violent outbursts — as with most biopics, it's a contained portrait of imperfection, where raw talent is meant to outweigh nobility in the audience's measure of sympathy. But where the film manages to better recent entries such as Ray and Ali is that it's actually less of a biography and more of a love story — without the presence of Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, we might be left with little more than the pieces of a larger puzzle that don't necessarily form a continuous image. Because of this, Witherspoon's Best Actress win seems less of a gesture and more a recognition — specifically, as June Carter she presents not just a beautiful, independent woman, but also one who is worth loving. And if Johnny Cash's music leads us to appreciate the many crossroads contained in American songs, it's June Carter who helps us to simply understand him.

Fox's two-disc DVD release of Walk the Line presents the film in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on Disc One include a feature commentary with director/co-writer James Mangold, 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary, and the theatrical trailer, while Disc Two includes the documentary "Celebrating the Man in Black: The Making of Walk the Line," the featurettes "Folsom, Cash and the Comeback" and "Ring of Fire: The Passion of Johnny and June," and three extended musical sequences. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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