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.
Likewise, Reese Witherspoon turns in the best performance of her career as June Carter. Going in, it was hard to imagine that Hollywood could give us more than an excessively down-homey, country-bumpkin in Carter. But Witherspoon’s character is a smart, witty, full-bodied woman who tries not to let her passions lead her to making rash decisions but doesn’t always succeed – the kind of woman who could pen the lyrics for her husband’s future hit, “Ring of Fire.”
However, while executed superbly, it must be admitted that these elements are hardly new territory for a biopic. Many musicians struggle with tough childhoods and substance abuse. More than a few need the love of a good woman to put ‘em right (though, of course, few then remain faithfully devoted for the next 35 years). But what is new territory is taking the public’s perception of an icon and casting it in a different light, so that we have a new understanding of his or her work.
Usually films about the famous offer private moments that support the subject’s public persona. For example, audiences already knew Ray Charles as the genius, so Ray the movie, step by step, endeavors to show why the moniker was accurate.
Walk the Line is different.
The recording industry capitalized on Cash by portraying him as a man of contradiction. As many of the filmmakers noted in Townhall’s interview, most fans see him as man conflicted between darkness and light. Walk the Line, however, depicts a man of alarming, unnerving consistency both in his music and in his personal life.
Throughout the film, Cash makes people uncomfortable. He makes rock fans uncomfortable, because he refuses to “outgrow” his country and western roots, and he makes country and western fans uncomfortable, because he refuses to become a cookie cutter artist and celebrates musical greatness wherever it is found – even when it means covering a 1960s anti-war ballad.
He makes the faithful uncomfortable, because he sings about sin. And he makes the heathens uncomfortable, because he sings about God. But in the end, Cash wins them all, because he understands that a good song transcends genre, and his simple logic shames the most trumped-up theology. “Christians ain’t gonna like you playing your songs for a bunch of murderers and rapists,” a studio head says while trying to dissuade him from recording at Folsom.
“Well,” Johnny replies coolly, “then they ain’t Christians.”
By showing us the uncompromising logic of Cash’s work, Walk the Line is an appropriate tribute for an artist who lives in our national memory not because he burned bright and flamed out young, but because he fought his inner darkness and won eternity. He was a man at home among the criminals of Folsom and a man at home with America’s greatest living preacher, Billy Graham, and he knew that his God had no problem with that. As I once heard someone say of Johnny Cash, “I wager he’s the only one in Heaven wearing black.”