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Film review: Great acting, singing drive 'Line'

WALK THE LINE — *** 1/2 — Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin; rated PG-13 (drugs, profanity, violence, vulgarity, racial epithets, brief gore);.

The makers of "Walk the Line" have taken a huge risk by having actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sing the songs of the late Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in the film. In fact, the only time Cash's voice is heard is during the final credits.

Surprisingly, the risk pays off handsomely, as Phoenix and Witherspoon's sterling musical performances give this biographical drama about the two country-music legends some much-needed authenticity. They won't be the next big musical phenomenon, but they do sound fine on the handful of songs they perform.

Still, it's really their acting performances that drive this film, which has a similar story structure to last year's musical biopic "Ray." However, "Walk the Line" feels weightier, more substantive and is better assembled.

The film tries to show how Cash's career was influenced by his humble beginnings, especially his strained relationship with his sharecropper father (Robert Patrick). During brief tour of duty in the Air Force (during the Korean War), Cash embarks on a musical career. But the constant touring puts a serious strain on his marriage to his first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), with whom he has four daughters.

Touring also brings with it a number of temptations, which help fuel Cash's addiction to alcohol and drugs. It also introduces him to June — although she is married and has children of her own. Co-screenwriter/director James Mangold ("Girl Interrupted," "Identity") spends much of the film's second half showing how the relationship between the two troubled musicians developed.

What really sells "Walk the Line" is the believable chemistry between the two leads. Also, Phoenix isn't doing an imitation of Cash here as much as he is incorporating some of his mannerisms. Witherspoon, as Carter, does likewise, and she adds some much-needed spark and humor to the film.

In addition to Cash's songs, there are numbers from Elvis Presley (performed by Tyler Hilton, from TV's "One Tree Hill"), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Waylon Jennings (played by his son, Shooter).

"Walk the Line" is rated PG-13 for some strong drug content (prescription-drug abuse and references to other drug use), scattered use of strong profanity (including one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), domestic violence and some other violent outbursts, use of some crude sexual slang terms and racial epithets, and some brief gore. Running time: 136 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com