Home > Movies > Ray vs. Walk the Line: May the best biopic win

Ray vs. Walk the Line: May the best biopic win

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Walk the Line, the biopic about Johnny Cash. Throughout the movie, I was comparing it to Ray, another musical biopic from last year. What’s been rattling around in my head is one simple question: Which did I like more?

So, in the spirit of ESPN’s Nick Bakay, I’ll compare different aspects of each movie, and assign an advantage. At the end, we’ll count up the number of “wins” for each side and that movie will win the coveted Sweet Monkey Pie Musical Biopic Award for 2005-2006. Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon are all on speed-dial. Let’s get into it.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
Ray: Early in the movie, we see Ray Charles’ younger brother, drowning in a washtub while Ray stood by, unable to move or help in any way. The movie depicts the entire scene in agonizing detail. And, oh yeah… Ray went blind later. He sorta carried those two things with him throughout the rest of his life. Like you do.
Walk the Line: Johnny Cash adores his older brother, who was, in Johnny’s estimation, much smarter – and bound for great things. The brother is using an unstable circular saw and, unseen to the audience, has an accident. Cash is standing by his brother’s deathbed and is haunted by the image. And, oh yeah… Johnny’s dad blames him for the death, saying the wrong son died. Nice man, really. That’s a “Father of the Year” candidate right there.
ADVANTAGE: Ray. Both men had events as kids that fueled their later demons. However, the movie Ray presented such a vivid, evocative scene that I honestly can’t watch the movie again. That puts it into Saving Private Ryan territory. Not bad company.

FORGETTABLE FIRST WIFE
Ray: Early in his career, Ray met a gospel singer that became the object of his obsession. Played by Kerry Washington, she sat idly by and merely whined at Ray as he went on the road, made money, and got addicted to drugs.
Walk the Line: While in high school, Johnny meets a young girl that became the object of his obsession. Played by Ginnifer Goodwin, she sat idly by and merely whined at Johnny as he went on the road, made money, and got addicted to drugs.
ADVANTAGE: Push. Seriously, they brought nothing to the table other than to drive their husband to the other women. Speaking of which…

THE OTHER WOMAN
Ray: As one of his backup singers, Margie Hendricks (Regina King) is nothing but trouble for Ray. Just a little skank-tastic, fatalistic woman. Plus, I have a thing for King.. and have since Jerry Maguire. She helps ruin Ray’s marriage (although he was doing a good job of it on his own). Plus, she assists Ray in writing “Hit the Road, Jack.” Although when KFC co-opted the song as, “Cross the road, Jack/Kentucky Fried Chicken’s got mo’ got mo’ got mo’ got mo’” that song died a little for me.
Walk the Line: Reese Witherspoon as June Carter pretty much stole the movie. I mean, words can’t describe it… she did a fantastic job. She portrayed June as a woman who knows that being with Cash is going to suck sometimes, but she can’t escape his charm, talent and spirit. By the way, I have a thing for Reese, too.
ADVANTAGE: Walk the Line. Witherspoon. Oscar. I loved Regina King, and this was close, but Witherspoon took the movie from good to great.

CHANGIN’ THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Ray: In the ‘50s, Ray Charles brought a blend of gospel, jazz, blues and popular music to help create R&B. The movie shows this, but make it much more “revolutionary” than “evolutionary.” Here’s what I mean. Several times in the movie, Charles sits down at the piano, and starts belting out epochal tunes on the fly. Maybe it happened that way. But did every one of his songs just “happen?” It got almost comical. “I Got a Woman,” “Hit the Road, Jack” and “What I’d Say?” all just kinda came up. When Foxx would sit at the piano, I kept waiting for another classic to appear out of the ether.
Walk the Line: Similar to Ray, Johnny Cash does have an epiphany during his first audition with a record executive (the legendary Sam Phillips). After trying gospel, Philips is getting ready to throw him out of the office, but Cash tries one of the prison tunes that were rattling around in his head while in the Air Force. It was a bit jarring, but still, you had a feeling it was always there… and had taken years to marinate. And similar to Ray Charles’ pioneering sound, the Cash songs were neither country nor rock. He was on tour with Elvis initially, but later he teamed with Waylon Jennings. He moved between both groups, and the movie does a good job of showing that unique mix.
ADVANTAGE: Walk the Line. Seriously, the songs just happening in Ray really bugged me. Probably was my only serious problem with that movie.

FIGHTIN’ THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Ray: Ray Charles was savvy enough to make some significant changes in the way that recording artists were viewed in the industry. (Plus, his earliest producer was played by Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. Always good to see Curtis Armstrong working). Anyway, Ray used his popularity to do things that were unheard of: getting control of his master tapes from a major label, performing orchestral numbers even though he was an established R&B act, etc. Ray changed the face of music, and Foxx does a good job of showing that battle.
Walk the Line: Late in the movie, there’s a great scene when Cash suits up in his black-on-black suit combo, goes to the label, and says he wants to record some live recordings at a prison concert. The executives act like he was asking to redo the Halleluiah Chorus with an all-banjo choir. He does it anyway, on the condition that they could release it if they wanted. He did, and the result was “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.” Not too shabby.
Advantage: Walk the Line. Although Ray’s efforts were more legendary, in the movie, Phoenix’s delivery of the prison recording idea was timeless. Cash by a hair.

HAPPY FUN DRUG HABIT
Ray: I mean, you have a blind guy doing an intravenous drug. C’mon! The guy can’t see, and he’s finding a vein. That’s solid.
Walk the Line: Cash took some pills. I could do that.
Advantage: Ray. In a laugher.

MUSICAL PERFORMANCES
Ray: We all know Jamie Foxx can really sing. And seriously, Jamie, can you please stop with all the videos now? We get it. You’re not Eddie Murphy singing “Party All the Time.” But, in the movie, that was Ray Charles singing. Not Foxx.
Walk the Line: Joaquin and Reece sang their parts. Phoenix was ridiculously good, and the only reason I’m not giving the same praise to Witherspoon is that I’m not quite as familiar with June Carter. But, she was terrific, too.
Advantage: Walk the Line. Not really close.

EMOTIONAL CATHARSIS
Ray: At the end, the movie jumps forward a few decades and finds Ray in the Georgia state house hearing a proclamation from the same state that once barred his performances to mixed (black and white) audiences.
Walk the Line: At the end, we see a flashback to the first scene. Cash is staring at a circular saw. He’s backstage at Folsom Prison prior to the live concert. The saw is a smack-you-in-the-head reminder of his older brother’s demise. The opening song is getting cranked up onstage, and he just waits and stares at the saw. He then takes the stage and delivers a blistering performance.
Advantage: Walk the Line. It tied up the whole movie a little better.

So, there you have it. Walk the Line wins 5-2-1. Of course, I probably left out about a dozen criteria. Regardless, I’ll order the coveted Sweet Monkey Pie award and have it waiting for the cast of Walk the Line. Maybe Reese will come by herself to pick it up. That’d be sweet.

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Categories: Movies
  1. backdorr
    February 20, 2006 at 7:50 am

    On pure gut feel, Walk the Line takes it in a land slide. T Bone Burnette (of O Brother fame) brought this whole movie together with the music. Sadly, I found myself singing throughout the movie, but I am seeing a doctor about that.

  2. exnygal
    February 20, 2006 at 10:17 am

    And Walk the Line also gets a point for how the actors handled the fame after the movie release. Let’s face it, although Jamie was good as Ray, his head got too big. I was beginning to get annoyed with his not-so-sincere thank you speeches and his constant talk of it on all the shows. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that he thanked his grandmother and cried on TV but he milked that for all it was worth. Now he has an album and videos! Joaquin and Reese are much more sincere in their appreciation and have not allowed the fame to go to their heads.

  1. October 7, 2006 at 10:14 pm

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