A little over a year ago, a biopic of a groundbreaking, near-legendary, recently-deceased singer-songwriter whose life had been filled with more than its fair share of tragedy and upset along with the success earned wild critical praise and numerous awards.
Much was made about the accuracy of the central performance, with praise heaped upon the actor responsible for his vocal mimicry and attention to detail, as well as how the actor had got to know and gain the blessing of the person he was portraying before he died.
So there’s a strange sense of déjà vu about this film, in which almost exactly the same is true. The only real difference is that last year the subject was Soul/Blues legend Ray Davis, played to Oscar-winning glory by Jamie Foxx, whereas this time it’s Country/Blues legend Johnny Cash, with Golden Globe victor Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, who’s brought back to life.
There is, however, one significant difference in terms of the structure and reception of the two films – this biopic focuses as much on the loving relationship between Cash and his second wife, June Carter, as on his music and career; and despite Phoenix’s spot-on central performance, it is Reese Witherspoon as June who seems to have been getting the majority of the praise and awards.
Johnny and June seemed the perfect partners and were practically inseparable once they were finally married, even dying within a few months of each other in 2003. Yet their coming together was not easy. When they first met, both were married to other people. This film covers Cash’s life up until 1968, the year he and June were finally married, along the way taking in his beloved elder brother’s tragic death, Cash’s rise to fame, the decline of his first marriage and ever-present battles with drug and alcohol addiction.
June was, however, famous in her own right as part of The Carter Family, a country group that met with much success between the late 1920s and early 1940s. She was to join in 1940, towards the end of the group’s career, before continuing to record and tour with her mother and sisters. Such was her fame that she even briefly dated movie legend James Dean, whose early death in September 1955 came just as Johnny Cash was beginning to have his first successes as a musician. As Cash’s fame grew, the similar musical circles in which they moved ensured that a meeting would soon happen – and the rest, as they say, makes for a fair amount of “doomed love” style plot scenarios before their eventual coming together, following their collaboration in writing one of Cash’s best-known songs, Ring of Fire.
As such, this is effectively a twin biopic – and one which has given both its stars a real chance to shine. Both actors studied and trained hard for their roles, learning instruments and perfecting their mimicry of the voices of these two much-loved singers.
Phoenix’s near-perfect imitation of Cash’s instantly-recognisable, deep and idiosyncratic tones is little short of amazing, and Witherspoon likewise puts in the performance of her career – a far cry from the ditzy likes of the Legally Blonde films for which she is best known.
Despite following the standard biopic structure, this is certainly one of the best examples of the genre and, had it not been for the Oscar glory of Ray last year, would be a strong contender at the Academy Awards next month. As it stands, it is a moving and absorbing movie, packed with great music, and certainly to be highly recommended.