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click to enlarge Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) greets his fans at Folsom - Prison.
  • Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) greets his fans at Folsom Prison.

*Walk the Line (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

Romeo and Juliet. Ozzie and Harriet. Johnny and June. Their names alone evoke legendary romances and eternal partnerships.

Director James Mangold's delightful just-in-time-for-the-holiday biopic Walk the Line tells the story of country music great Johnny Cash by focusing on the seminal relationship of his life, with co-performer, friend and wife June Carter.

It's only natural to expect differences of opinion between hard-core Cash fans and the non-initiated over the movie's merits. But viewers from both camps will walk away entertained by this lively, frequently funny, mainstream treatment of a life that transcended the mainstream.

This movie fits into a familiar category that includes last year's Ray, the Patsy Cline biography Sweet Dreams, and the best of the bunch, Coal Miner's Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country star Loretta Lynn. Walk the Line falls somewhere between Coal Miner's Daughter and Ray, between great and just good.

Cash's early life fits the cinematic formula: a childhood mired in poverty and colored by family tragedy, followed by meteoric early success alongside other show-biz legends, drug addiction and the fast life, a fall from grace, love of Jesus and, finally, redemption.

Mangold lays the story out as a flashback, taking the reader from the stage of Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, to the cotton fields of Dyess, Ark. We become acquainted with his sainted older brother, Jack, his abusive father, Ray (Robert Patrick), and his beautiful but weakly mother Carrie (Shelby Lynne), who appreciates his singing talent.

The movie comes to life when Joaquin Phoenix takes the stage, channeling the sober depth and power of Cash's personality and his musical voice. His flaws are on display: He neglects his first wife and three little girls, messes around on the road, and gives in to the temptation of the readily available and potentially deadly upper, chomping down handfuls of pills between sets and in the back of the tour bus.

But when Johnny's singing, we're a hundred percent with him, and Phoenix captures him nearly perfectly. The on-stage moments are fabulous, and Mangold wisely gives us entire musical numbers instead of just snippets of songs.

A frequent tour mate is young June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon with her characteristic spunk. June is a joker and a lifelong trooper -- she took to the stage with her famous mother and father at age 4 -- known in show business circles for her dedication, her ready wit and her musical pedigree. Though Witherspoon is less successful than Phoenix at capturing the essence of her character as a singer, who'll complain about an actress who frequently improves upon her subject?

Where Carter's voice was throaty, Witherspoon's is thin. And where Carter frequently veered off key, bending notes in her inimitable way, Witherspoon's keying and diction are impeccably clear. Only in the duet "Jackson" does Witherspoon begin to sound like Carter. Her rendition of "Wildwood Flower," beautiful and flawless, sounds nothing like Carter's more warbling and wandering version.

What matters is that the film is true to Cash's life as told in his approved biography and autobiography, and the story is a doozy. The film is carried on wings of good energy, taking all of us, lifelong fans and neophytes alike, into a legend's home and heart. Along the way, we get glances of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and legendary music producer Sam Phillips, and can only wonder what was in that Southern water to give us all that great music in a singular time and place.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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