The year is 1968 and Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is about to go on stage to entertain the inmates of Folsom Prison, but as his band plays and the crowd cheers for him, Cash is lost in thought. He reflects on his life so far, going right back to when he was a boy in Arkansas and adored his older brother. Then a memory that has haunted him since childhood resurfaces, the day when his brother was cutting up wood and was fatally injured by the saw. Cash wasn't with him when he had his accident, and recalls being picked up on the road by his stern father Ray (Robert Patrick) who demanded to know where he had been. Cash feels his father has always blamed him for the death, and this guilt has stayed with him all these years...
Johnny Cash was, and still is, a musical icon, so his story was a natural choice to be transferred to the big screen, even if it took so long to do so that both Cash and his wife June Carter were dead by the time it was released. Adapted from Cash's two autobiographies by Gill Dennis and director James Mangold, it takes the flashback route to lead up to the famed prison show that became the massive-selling live album, and most of the action is taken up with it's protagonist's rise to country music stardom, and descent into drug- and alcohol-fuelled hell.
The story doesn't flow seamlessy, rather hopping throught the years for reconstructions of important moments in Cash's life, beginning with the childhood tragedy and moving forward to his stint in the U.S. Air Force where not only would he phone home from Germany to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), convinced she was the woman for him even though they only been going out a month before he was drafted, but also spend his spare time writing songs. Cue scenes of Phoenix in his Cash persona carefully picking his way through The Man in Black's early hits, to get them to sound just right.
Vivian and Cash are married, and while he supports his new family (well, nearly) as a salesman he tries to break into the music industry. Up until this point it's all been so far, so TV movie, but there then follows a great scene, possibly the best in the film, where Cash manages to get an impromptu audition with legendary record company boss Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) and he persuades him to ditch the colourless gospel and learn to sing from the heart. After that, a deal is secured, a record is put out, and Cash never looks back, although he does look around. Enter songbird Carter, played with a mixture of sugary sweetness and steely resolve by Reese Witherspoon, and a slow acting romance begins its journey.
Phoenix and Witherspoon did all their own excellent singing, Witherspoon winning an Oscar for her trouble, and while the onstage sequences have real energy and bounce, you never would mistake Phoenix for Cash, as he instead gives a performance (wisely not an impersonation) of a man who was called Johnny Cash, had his experiences, but wasn't quite the real thing. The spiritual dimension is lacking, and that doesn't mean any religious themes are hugely missed, just that Cash's emotional progression isn't enforced with his soulfulness here. Also, it's odd that a film whose principal characters walk all over the sanctity of marriage for most of the running time should be so sentimental about Cash and Carter's eventual union, but that lends proceedings a peculiar charm nevertheless. And that's the main strength, the admiration the filmmakers evidently have for their subject that inspires the same feelings in the audience. That guy doesn't sound much like Elvis Presley, mind you. Music by T-Bone Burnett.