Johnny Cash was a man of many sides, many lives and at least one death and one resurrection. The recently released movie of his life, “Walk the Line,” somehow manages to capture all of this and more in a fast-paced movie that gets up close and personal without getting at all sentimental.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role with an almost uncanny characterization of one of the most recognizable and distinctive personalities in the history of American popular music. Phoenix not only looks the part, but sounds the part as he performs all the singing in the movie. He sings not so much in imitation of Cash, but in tribute to him; offering up a voice less rich, less gravelly and less ruined than the “Man In Black” himself, but no less heartfelt, intense or defiant.
Reese Witherspoon, in her role as Cash’s extra-marital love interest June Carter, also turns out to possess a voice worthy of the legacy that June and the Carter family has represented to the world of Country Western music. Her bouncy, buoyant cheerfulness almost suffocates in saccharine sweetness until we discover a deeper, hurting side beneath the jokes and smiles.
Other supporting characters are developed to varying degrees. Rhe role of Cash’s first wife, Vivian (played long-sufferingly yet tenderly by Ginnifer Goodwin), being especially important and effective in framing her husband’s slow and painful collapse of character and common sense.
Dialogue is short and concise. What is unspoken is filled in by the context of scenes filled with the driving rhythm of music from such contemporary friends as Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
The photography captures the hot and faded world of the mid-1950s through to the late 1960s with an eerie and uncanny authenticity (having lived those years myself I can make that comment). The raw energy let loose by these trail-blazing performers rips through the cultural landscape like a tornado sweeping through a Tennessee cotton field.
Through the abuse of alcohol and drugs, Cash comes to a literal collapse of his career. After losing everything, including his wife and children, he tries one last time to impress his father, his mother and June Carter with the purchase of a house that is as empty yet as full of promise as his own life.
With the help of June and her parents, Cash is gently and lovingly led through his personal “valley of the shadow of death.” His emergence from years of darkness into light leads him eventually to reclaim his talent and redirect it for the uplift and hope of others who have fallen from grace in the eyes of the world.
His signature concert, recorded live inside Folsom Prison, was a runaway commercial success. More than that, however, the experience brought catharsis to Cash’s struggle to find purpose, meaning and acceptance in his life.
In one of the great ironies of the movie, Cash’s heartless and cold singing of a gospel song is dismissed by the director of Sun Records who challenges Cash’s faith in Jesus Christ by saying, “You don’t believe that he has saved you. You are going to have to save yourself.”
By following that advice, Cash “gains the world but loses his soul.” It is only in finding salvation outside of himself, in the person of June Carter, that he is able to rediscover and rekindle what had been his childhood faith in Jesus Christ.
The movie uses few, if any, gimmicks. Although there are few out and out belly laughs, humor constantly creeps in and out of the movie like a light in the darkness, without effort and always with a firm grip on the humanity that the characters represent so honestly (and sometimes painfully).
There are more sinners than saints in Walk the Line, but, in the end, redemption, reconciliation and new life triumph and Johnny Cash, with a limp and a scar, arm in arm with the now June Carter Cash, leave us with the sense that love, empowered by grace, can, indeed, raise the dead to life.
The movie is gritty and there are scenes (such as one where Cash and Vivian battle out their frustrations in front of their terrified children) that will make grown men squirm uncomfortably in their theatre seat.
But the one scene that was “seared, seared into my memory,” was when I saw old, homely Mother Maybelle Carter and her husband chase a bewildered drug dealer off of Cash’s property with a pair of shotguns.
The scene was brief and fleeting. But it captured the spirit of “tough love” that enabled Cash to overcome his inner demons. It also produced a genuine, spontaneous belly laugh from at least one person in the theater….me!
I recommend this movie highly. It is not preachy but it is real in a way that can only be captured by showing real people as they really were.
The acting, dialogue, photography and sound track are symbiotic and superb.
I guarantee that you will be humming the “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” for days after you have seen the movie.