Whenever I see so much "Oscar worthy" tags/blurbs in an ad campaign I get nervous, see Cinderella Man. Usually you look closely at the fine print and see that the esteemed critic lauding the film is Joe Schmoe from the One Stop Light Bugle Press in Buttcreek, Illinois or a low level flunky who just happens to work for the media conglomerate that is distributing the film. So my heart sank a little when a film I have been eagerly awaiting was swaddled with such praise when the ads hit the air.
But they're right for once.
Joaquin Phoenix wears Johnny Cash like a suit. He isn't doing a Rich Little impersonation, you don't rub your eyes in disbelief, but he channels a man so distinct in appearance and voice to a level that is beyond admirable. One of the traits that made Johnny Cash a legend was that nobody sounded or looked like him. Short of a computer generated Cash walking around in his own bio-pic like one of those John Wayne beer commercials this is the definitive representation.
And yet Phoenix may not give the best performance in the film.
Reese Witherspoon more than holds up her end in a role that easily could have been reduced to a clichéd bumpkin. Witherspoon portrays the on-stage June in the way June portrayed her own "character", the stage persona that people adored, while giving her the resolve and inner strength to be the woman who tamed a hell-bent, grizzly bear of a man like John.
The chemistry of Phoenix and Witherspoon together in any scene, but their on-stage duets in particular, are truthful in a way that resonates long after the credits. I know that unless you have been living in a cave for the past week you have likely been bombarded with the word that the actors sing themselves without use of lip syncing. I have never been a fan of musicals, or even musical performances in a film. They generally seem forced and uncomfortable to me, the moment when I stop experiencing the story and feel reminded that I am watching a movie. I never felt that in this film. I never felt that their singing took the focus of the film, but the performances work with the story like no other music bio I have ever seen. I never felt as if I was being led through the catalog, the songs felt as organic and natural as any spoken dialog in a great narrative.
This film far exceeded my expectations and afforded me the first trip home from a theater with a true feeling of satisfaction in a very, very long time. Highly recommended.
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