Directed by James Mangold
Written by Gill Dennis & James Mangold
Based on The Man in Black by Johnny Cash and Cash: An Autobiography by Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr
Walk the Line begins as a biography about legendary musician Johnny Cash who burst onto the scene in the 1950s with a string of hit songs released by Sun Records. He continued to make his presence felt up until his death in 2003 when he collaborated with producer Rick Rubin on a cover of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” and the amazingly poignant video that accompanied it. As the film progresses, it changes its focus to the love story between Cash and June Carter, which the title of the film alludes to. The song “I Walk the Line” is about a man who stays on the straight and narrow for the woman that he loves.
When Cash was a young boy, his brother died in an accident. This had a great impact on him and the family dynamic. After serving in the Air Force, Cash marries his sweetheart Vivian Leberto. He tries working odd jobs while pursuing his dream of becoming a musician. He plays with guitarist Lester Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, eventually getting an audition with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips in 1955. Phillips isn’t impressed with the traditional gospel number they perform because he’s heard it many times before and heard it better. Cash takes a chance and plays a song he wrote called “Folsom Prison.” Since this is the first time they have heard it, the other fellows jump in when they can. Phillips hears a talent he can sell and signs them.
They go out on tour as Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two with other Sun Records’ artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. Cash discovers the life of a touring musician offers access to eager female fans willing to help you enjoy your stay in a new town and amphetamines to keep you moving onto the next city. It also makes home life difficult which his wife makes clear as she struggles to raise their children virtually alone.
It is during one of his first performances that Cash meets Carter, a member of the first family of country music. She does comic relief similar to Minnie Pearl. Cash remembers the singer in her and when he begins touring on his own, he gets her to join him. He also has another motive. He’s attracted too her and wants to be with her. She’s attracted to him as well, but doesn’t want to be involved with a married man.
The film doesn’t make clear why the two fall in love. They are both very good-looking, talented singers, but the film doesn’t offer much else that they see in each other. He drinks a great deal and is an amphetamine addict. She has two failed marriages, but the causes are never explained. They both help each other through very hard times, but I wanted some insight as to why their marriage worked when there’s no indication from their past that it would.
Walk The Line is a pleasant film filled with good performances and great music that will provide enjoyment for the casual acquaintance of Cash. The actors do a good job in bringing these popular public figures to life. Joaquin Phoenix recreates Cash by focusing on his character traits rather than attempting an imitation. When performing the songs, he matches Cash’s passion, even though he doesn’t capture the deep bass of Cash’s voice. Admittedly, it would be unfair to expect him or anyone else to recreate one of the signature voices of country music. Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Carter is heartfelt as she covers the wide range of emotions that were experienced in falling in love with Cash. It had to be a very intense and chaotic relationship for him to inspire her lyrics for “Ring of Fire.” Witherspoon’s singing is shrill at first, but it grows on you as the film progresses.
The film has many entertaining scenes. The entire Folsom Prison sequence from pitching the idea to playing in front of the inmates is the strongest section of the film is quintessential Cash. It illustrates his vision, determination and commitment to his ideas and his fans. Once Cash hits the stage, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion along with the prisoners.
More serious fans looking for a biography of the man’s life are sure to be disappointed. The film ends with Carter accepting Cash’s wedding proposal. Before the credits roll, the audience is informed that they continued in the music business for 35 years until their deaths in 2003, leaving too many threads of Cash’s life left untouched, which is to be expected when skipping half the man’s life.
His friendship with Bob Dylan is not dealt with, yet he certainly had an impact on Cash’s life. They wrote letters to each other, in one scene Cash listens to “Highway 61 Revisited”, and when Cash is talking with Columbia executives about recording his Folsom Prison appearance, which was released in 1968, there is talk about the new sounds happening in music, specifically Dylan going electric. Other events that go unmentioned are Cash playing on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Dylan appearing on Cash’s television show. Overlooking this unique bond is a diservice to history.
Cash also fell out of favor with country radio stations in the ‘80s and he rarely got any airplay. When he won a Grammy in 1998 for “Unchained”, he and Rick Rubin released a “thank you” ad to radio stations that featured a famous photo of Cash flipping the bird.
While I was hoping to learn more about the man and his art, it’s hard to knock anything that draws attention to Cash’s talent and body of work. I’m glad that people will be reminded about and some introduced to his music. Walk the Line is a very good film for what it is, but it’s not the film about Cash that I wanted.