When those of us under the age of 45 think of Johnny Cash, we usually think of his recent work. We may recall his crusades with Billy Graham or his startlingly affecting last single, a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” Or maybe, we even think of the Social Distortion cover of the Cash hit “Ring of Fire” that was popular when I was in high school. In other words, when we of the post-Vietnam generations recall the late Johnny Cash, we recall the Man in Black, who long ago ceased being a mere mortal and had, even before his death, already passed into myth.
Walk the Line sweeps aside that legend and introduces us to the Johnny Cash our parents and grandparents knew. It’s a thrilling, wonderful pleasure to meet him.
The film focuses on Cash’s life from his boyhood to his famous live recording at Folsom Prison in 1968. It’s the most tumultuous period in the singer’s life – long before Christ and June finally bring peace to his soul – as he rises from being the enlisted son of a sharecropper to a country and western music superstar.
Viewers not acquainted with this period will likely delight at seeing Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Cash touring the South as one boozing, rocking jamboree. But even more engaging is Cash’s pursuit of his life-long love, June Carter.
As a kind of plucky den mother to this rag-tag bunch of highway men, June is irresistibly drawn to Johnny but refuses to hitch her wagon to a no-account drug user - and a married one at that. On finding the boys still drunk after an all-night bender, she lets loose, hollering at the group, “Can’t none of y’all walk the line!” But it’s clear her words are meant mostly for John. This sets the stage for their decade-long courtship in which Cash loses his soul to drinking, drugs, and longing for June and finds his only salvation when they’re performing together on stage.
Joaquin Phoenix, who does his own singing, packs every moment he shares the spotlight with June with romantic tension. With every note and guitar strum, we see that he knows the only place he can have June all to himself is in front of an audience. Phoenix may not be quite as charismatic as Cash himself, but he comes about as close as any actor can.
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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