Sex, drugs, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory: whether dealing with Ray Charles, Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin, the rock'n'roll biopic can be as cheaply formulaic as pop radio. But while Walk the Line, James Mangold's portrait of the American icon Johnny Cash, features all the genre's illegal highs and cold-turkey lows, it vitally realises that this was the moment when every rock'n'roll cliche was fresh-minted by a tough band of pioneers. Not only does the film show just how hungry Cash was to sing his songs, it understands how hungry society was for the cataclysmic changes such music brought.
Walk the Line is ostensibly about the redemptive ten-year courtship between Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and the saintly yet sassy country star June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), but it is also a portrayal of a time when everything changed. Phoenix's glowering, destructive Cash embodies this shift. In the film's most thrilling scene, he walks into Sam Phillips's legendary Sun Studio as a door-to-door salesman and walks out a star. Initially he and his band audition with the cornball gospel that then played well with churchgoing folk. The canny Phillips (Dallas Roberts) instead demands a song about real pain: "That's the kind of song that really saves people." With a cobra stare, Cash starts to sing "Folsom Prison Blues", featuring one of the most chilling lines in rock'n'roll - "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die". By the end, you know things will never be the same.
Despite the pitfalls of most biopics, nothing in this film rings false. The gen-erally handsome Phoenix impressively channels some of his subject's tuberous quality, and looks as if someone dug him right out of the Arkansas soil. He perfects Cash's death-or-glory guitar grip, and if his singing voice is not that of the Man in Black, it crackles with the right spirit. As with Oliver Stone's JFK, there is the uncanny sense that you are witnessing iconic images from impossible angles. In Stone's film, it was the Zapruder home movie of Kennedy's assassination; here it is Cash furtively peering through a door at Sun Studio as Elvis (Tyler Hilton) records a session, or the thump-boom-thump of a bassline pounding through the walls at the famous Folsom Prison show.
By providing Cash's story with such a powerful context, Mangold also supercharges the sentimental journey at its heart. We get to see his wretched childhood in a New Deal resettlement colony; the horrible death of his elder brother; the paternal neglect that both drove him on and drove him mad. The timeless conflict between domesticity and art is deftly conveyed in the scenes with Ginnifer Goodwin, playing Cash's first wife, Vivian, who is the archetypal casualty of fame.
At the film's heart, however, is the love between Cash and June Carter, a star from childhood thanks to her country-royalty birthright as a member of the Carter Family. Traces of Witherspoon's trademark sassiness are still visible, but she no longer marks time as an adorable Legally Blonde-style kook; her June is wise, spiritual and utterly tough-minded, her chemistry with Phoenix magnesium-bright. Displaying a down-home decency as wholesome as a clapboard church, she saves Cash from his amphetamine addiction, and it is she who best articulates her future husband's gifts: "Steady as a train. Sharp like a razor."
Famously, Cash identified with the underdog, the prisoner, the blue-collar worker, and he is seen pitching the Folsom Prison show to his record company. "Your fans are gospel folk, Johnny," says an executive. "They don't want to hear you singing to a bunch of murderers and rapists, trying to cheer them up." "Then they're not Christians," replies Cash nobly. You just hope that he would also have been singing for the heroine of Niki Caro's North Country. "Inspired" by the true case of a group of female miners who won a sexual discrimination lawsuit after terrible abuse by their male colleagues, the film tells the story of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron). Josey is a hairdresser in a small town where oompah music and soft rock still rule. Early on, escaping from an abusive relationship across the white wasteland of northern Minnesota, she sees two dead elk in the back of a pick-up truck. Clearly, in this brutal landscape, she is also prey.
Yet Theron's steady performance allows you to see something in Josey that baulks at her victim status. She meets up with Glory (the excellent Frances McDormand) and realises that she can provide for her family by becoming one of the first female miners. The men are not amused, however, and the misogynist abuse en-dured by these female pioneers makes Folsom Prison look like a Center Parc.
North Country is a film that needs no subtlety: the goodies and baddies are as clear as in an old-school western. Yet what could have been an "empowering" chick-flick, merely swapping kohl for coal, never shies away from the realities of Josey's life, the fierce imperative to survive. As Johnny Cash understood, in this grim America, the need for earthly salvation is just as important as the sweet hereafter.