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Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix don't act in 'Walk the Line'; they channel

There are some major movie miracles happening in Walk the Line, a highly entertaining biopic of the late Johnny and June Carter Cash. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are incredible, capturing the spirit of Johnny and June on and off the stage without mimicking them. Their performances go right alongside Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, making their portrayals of music stars among the best in cinema history.

The film is drawing many comparisons to last year's Ray, and some of the plot parallels are indeed similar. More credit must be given to Walk the Line for having faith in its performers and letting their own voices deliver the music. I have no doubt that Jamie Foxx could've performed the music of Ray Charles (he has a terrific voice), but producers decided to go with the lip sync. For me, that diminished the magic of that film.

There's no magic lost with this movie. Phoenix lays it all out there, with a raw performance that accurately mirrors Cash in his early years. During a re-creation of Cash's first audition for Sam Phillips, Phoenix puts something to screen that is earth-shatteringly good. A sequence where a clearly wrecked Johnny rips through a song on stage looks and sounds like some of the more frantic film footage of Cash during his chemically dependent years.

Since 2001's Legally Blonde, Witherspoon has been alternating insipid comedies with boring period pieces (although I loved her in this year's sweet Just Like Heaven). In the '90s, Witherspoon was one of the trade's most promising actresses (Election, Freeway, Pleasantville). Then Big Hollywood got hold of her charismatic charm and started casting her in money machines with little creative worth.

With Walk the Line, Witherspoon gets her chance to show what she's really made of, and this is her best performance to date. When her June Carter is partaking in onstage banter, Witherspoon radiates a convincing sort of energy that feels less like acting and more like channeling. When she sings, it's with surprising authority. It's remarkably impressive.

Director James Mangold and screenwriter Gill Dennis focus much of the film's attention on the long-forming relationship between Johnny and June Carter. There's also a subplot including Johnny having major daddy issues after the death of his older brother when he was a kid. These plot elements don't take away from the importance of the music. Elvis, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis all play a part in the story, with a cast of actors perfect in their parts.

As for the music, Phoenix and Witherspoon could actually tour with their act if they so desired. They both carry a tune with proficient grace, and their renditions of classic Cash tracks stand as loving, and great-sounding, tributes. Phoenix manages a Cash-like, deep growl (not to mention that Cash snarl), and not one note of his performance seems to have less than 100 percent commitment. Witherspoon manages that always smiling, charismatic energy that made June Carter the perfect complement to the Man in Black.

The film takes some artistic license. An onstage proposal near movie's end is, in fact, fictional and perhaps a little overboard. Truth is, Johnny and June did get married after many years of touring and many years of June spurning Johnny's proposals. Exaggerating the circumstance of the eventual proposal acceptance is par for the course in movie land.

Sure, there are a few cookie-cutter moments, but they don't diminish the accomplishments in this film. Phoenix and Witherspoon better get Oscar nominations for their work. What they have done here is historic, and the awards season is officially underway.

Walk the Line
Rated NR

More by Bob Grimm

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