Johnny Cash left a vast recorded legacy, along with countless interviews and performance films that capture both his recklessness and his spirituality, but his wife June Carter Cash left a much smaller catalog and only a few scant snippets of film, mostly from her later earth-mother years. Maybe the best way to understand June Carter Cash is to catch Reese Witherspoon's impersonation of her in James Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Her performance ends during the fledgling stages of June The Nurturer, but it starts with June The Cornpone Clown, cutting up onstage while winking at the silliness of it all offstage (and living pragmatically with persistent heartbreak). Witherspoon captures June in all her clear-headed, bright-eyed glory, without losing the Witherspoon within. When she grabs her autoharp and starts whooping it up, it's like witnessing a spiritual visitation.
Joaquin Phoenix is almost as impressive as Johnny Cash—or at least impressive enough that it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role—and Mangold stages the musical performances with energy and meaning. The songs frequently comment on the action: note the way the line "a million dollars ain't good for you" punctuates a montage of Cash's first success. Mangold and his co-writer Gill Dennis smartly frame the movie with Cash's legendary performance at Folsom Prison, where the singer accepted his role as a saint for sinners, and the movie ends poignantly, with a Cash family anecdote that re-emphasizes how much his work extended the oral tradition.
But Walk The Line doesn't really live up to its best moments. Mangold frequently gets stuck in rambling, episodic biopic mode, and he tries to lurch out of the rut by digging up the juiciest incidents of Cash's early fame—most having to do with his drug addiction. He never gets underneath the contradictions that allowed Cash to be personally out of control, yet creatively prosperous throughout the '60s. Walk The Line ends up being another one of those life-of-an-entertainer films that reduces an artist to his most embarrassing moments.
There's one notable exception, and that's the movie's depiction of Johnny's relationship with June. Early in the film, the young Cash is shown listening to The Carter Family on the radio, and even after he grows up and joins the military, he keeps pictures of the teenage June Carter in his footlocker. The arc of their romance shadows Cash's career path, as he falls in love with the idea of celebrity, then has to learn how to live with its reality. In that, Witherspoon-as-June makes an ideal instructor: simultaneously charming, deep, and broken inside.