Release date: Nov. 18U.S. distrib: 20th Century Fox Last year’s “Ray” established a new barometer for music-themed biopics, bringing Jamie Foxx near-unanimous praise and an Oscar for his lead perf. This year the likely beneficiary of the newfound appreciation for the biopic genre is this thoughtful and energetic look at country music icon Johnny Cash and his emotionally fraught courtship of performer June Carter. Like “Ray,” the project was many years in the making (seven), and won the blessings of its subjects before their passing in 2003. Reception at Toronto, where the film premiered, was strong. With a gala opening night recently at AFI Fest and a tribute concert at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, pic has laid solid groundwork for a high-profile Oscar campaign run. Reese Witherspoon magnetically channels Carter’s performance style but also portrays the private torment she felt over being drawn to such a self-destructive force. Perf’s reception is reminiscent of the accolades showered on Sissy Spacek for her Oscar-winning Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams.” Variety‘s Todd McCarthy dubbed Witherspoon’s turn “sensational.” Meanwhile, much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix’s insistence on using his voice to approximate Cash’s authoritative baritone, and learning guitar in the process. It is a vulnerable and charismatic portrait, which carefully calibrates everything from the development of his tortured-soul image and searing vocal style to the deepening frustration of a married man in love with another woman. Previously, the actor was a supporting nominee for “Gladiator.” Oscar voters have been known to honor the kind of hard work that shows onscreen, which will give added juice to the topliners’ fortunes. (Witherspoon wields a mean autoharp.) Offering solid supporting work are Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2″) as Cash’s unforgiving father, and Ginnifer Goodwin (“Mona Lisa Smile”) as Cash’s long-suffering first wife. Director/co-writer James Mangold (who scripted with Gill Dennis) has made a name for himself as an actor’s director with films such as “Heavy” and “Girl, Interrupted.” He has guided one actress to an Academy win: “Girl’s” Angelina Jolie. Another difficult task effectively accomplished is his handling of the live performance sequences, which encompass country vaudeville, rock ‘n’ roll tours and Cash’s famous Folsom prison concert, and help drive the story forward rather than act as toe-tapping interruptions. Storied music producer T-Bone Burnett, who was nommed for his work on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” handled the original music chores.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more