For Walk the Line, his biopic of country legend Johnny Cash, director James Mangold took a different tactic than director Taylor Hackford did with his Ray Charles bio, Ray. Where Hackford used Charles' classic original recordings for Atlantic as the heart of the film, Mangold decided to use new recordings for his movie, hiring producer T-Bone Burnett, the mastermind behind the surprise soundtrack success of the Coen Brothers' old-timey O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to steer his cast through re-creations of the classic Sun sound. Burnett skillfully conjures that lean, muscular, mysterious sound for his Walk the Line work, keeping all the performances direct and unadorned -- "Ring of Fire" even has its mariachi horns stripped from it -- and hiring a bunch of pros, including Sun vet Jack Clement, as the backing band. All this means that on a pure sonic level, Walk the Line is quite successful, but as a soundtrack album, it's still a bit of a disconcerting listen because it is, after all, actors singing as part of their performance. Listening to Joaquin Phoenix sing Johnny Cash's words and Reese Witherspoon sing as June Carter, it's hard not to shake the feeling that their on-record performances are part of a greater scheme that is impossible to discern without the film as a whole. That said, both Phoenix and Witherspoon give serious, sincere performances that are quite effective, particularly when they're supported by Burnette's crackerjack production. Strangely enough, it's the cameos from the other musicians featured in the film that ring a discordant note: Tyler Hilton's Elvis Presley and, especially, Waylon Malloy Payne's cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis are too close to caricatures to be effective, while Shooter Jennings' "I'm a Long Way from Home" and Johnathan Rice's "You're My Baby" (which regrettably drops the "little wooly booger" from Cash's original tune) are just a shade too modern in their approach to fit comfortably among the earnest, faithful re-creations that surround them. So, Walk the Line winds up being a curious yet enjoyable listen. By no means does this replace the Cash or Carter originals, but it's a good tribute to both musicians, while providing some fascinating insight to the art and craft of Phoenix and Witherspoon as actors.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine