Walk the Line
—1. Overview (multimedia)
—2. Overview Basic (dial up speed)
—3. Reviews and Blogs
—4. Cast and Crew
—5. Photo Pages
—6. Trailers, Clips, DVDs, Books, Soundtrack
—7. Posters (Joaquin Phoenix)
—8. Production Notes (pdf)
—9. Spiritual Connections
—10. Presentation Downloads
“You can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.” So says young J.R. Cash’s brother Jack early in this film. Well, Johnny Cash’s life is full of stories—a hard start in life, the death of a close family member, daddy issues, the hard road to fame, love, drug addiction, run-ins with the law, near suicide, faith, comeback, the achievement of legend status—and I wonder whether Walk the Line, in focusing so much on just one of the Man in Black’s tales, will help as many people as it could.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good movie. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do a very admirable job of acting and singing in it. It does portray a fascinating period of Cash’s life, taking us from his childhood, through early stardom and addiction, to his marriage to June Carter Cash. It does so using the standard, up-down-up musician biopic formula that has become cliché because, let’s admit, it works. The period-piece aspect of the film was also very enjoyable, as was getting to hear lots of great Cash songs, and getting to see those eureka-scenes of genesis—the black clothes, the inspiration behind “Folsom Prison Blues, “Ring of Fire,” and others, that first “hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Finally, I also appreciate the spiritual insights that can be gleaned from the picture. This is, when all's said and done, a movie about getting a second chance in life. About learning to find your true voice, and not just the one you think you're supposed to have. About those human needs we have for love, affirmation, and companionship.
But still, for fans who have, say, read his autobiography (I highly recommend it), or felt deeply spiritually inspired by his music, or enjoyed his career post-1968 . . . Walk the Line feels like something’s missing. As it is, the film’s version of Cash, who starts off trying to find his destiny out of the absence of his accidentally-killed brother, or perhaps out of spite for his unsupportive father—echoes of “A Boy Named Sue”—ends up being ultimately saved and fulfilled by the film’s version of June Carter. These other issues are somehow moved past, the movie doesn’t say how, and we’re left feeling that Cash’s whole life built up to, and led away from, his getting June to marry him. And poor June. By the end of the movie, she’s become Johnny’s only touchstone, and only seems to marry him mainly because of his persistence, and his severe need for her.
In contrast to this portrayal, the real Johnny Cash had a life that remained complex, conflicted, and story-worthy well past the sixties. Past his sixties. Into the twenty-first century, when his version of “Hurt” and its accompanying video introduced him to a new generation. But I could’ve forgiven the filmmakers for the tight focus—it does work, after all—except that the real Johnny Cash, if you asked him, might’ve wanted this movie to have a whole lot more to do with another of his stories: the story of his Christian faith.
Though hinted at in the movie, the fact is that his faith is what Cash claimed saved him and his life from addiction and suicide. Was June involved? Sure, but God was far more involved than the one abbreviated shot of a church in this film would lead you to believe. His writings and recordings are shot through with gospel songs, praises, confessions, failure and repentance. Shot through with the struggle of a man who perhaps thought that his brother Jack really was “the good son,” and that his father would’ve traded John to have Jack back any day, and that perhaps God might feel the same—an obvious connection that the film doesn’t make, and the kind of thing that tends to affect a person.
It was this struggle towards faith that really led Johnny Cash to become the Man in Black. To become the understanding, yet hopeful voice of the downtrodden. In the movie, we see this idea briefly, in a cool, almost super-hero like transformation—the black clothes as disguise. But what does the Man in Black end up singing in the movie when he goes to Folsom Prison, essentially, to minister to his people? “Cocaine Blues.” Yes, true, Cash did sing that song at Folsom. He sang it to relate, to be downtrodden with the prisoners, which he was. But do you know what he ended his set at Folsom with? A song called “Greystone Chapel,” the last line of which goes, “Inside the walls of prison my body may be, but my Lord has set my soul free.”This is the story missing from the story of Walk the Line. This is the one thing, fittingly, that could’ve saved the film from being just a good movie, and made it into what Johnny Cash really was: a voice in the wilderness, who understands the wilderness like you do, but who always goes back to talking about God and Jesus when you get around to thinking about how in the hell you get out of the wilderness.