By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
At Johnny Cash’s funeral in September 2003, actor Joaquin Phoenix shared a few words with Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. Phoenix was already set to star as the Man in Black in a biopic of his life, which Carter Cash would be the executive producer of, and Cash was reportedly thrilled to have Phoenix portray him because he was a fan of one of his films, “Gladiator.”
Phoenix never met Cash face to face, but with the blessing of the legendary musician, had enormous shoes to fill to bring Cash’s story to the screen.
“Walk the Line” succeeds in telling the story of a southern boy, growing up in poverty and estranged from his father, constantly trying to prove to those closest to him that he had talent and could succeed. A man of deep faith, Cash has inspired millions with his truthful words spun to the tune of perseverance, hope and, above all, redemption. What was key to Cash’s music is key to the film, and the theme of redemption carries the show.
While picking cotton in 1940s Arkansas alongside his family, Cash learned to sing with the help of his mother, who would begin a hymn to make the day go faster or change the subject when her husband became angry for whatever reason. At night, he’d sit by the radio listening to country music singers such as the Carter family, with his favorite being the youngest Carter daughter, June.
Cash wasn’t the good son; his brother, Jack, was set to be a preacher and was the family favorite. A tragic accident soon pulled the family apart, with Cash growing up wondering how he, the bad son, could accomplish anything or make his father proud.
The story then follows Cash through his service in the Air Force, the first years of his marriage to Vivian Liberto in Memphis, Tenn., and the formation of his band – Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. In 1955, the band auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Elvis’ label, with gospel music, but Phillips didn’t bite. He said the country had heard the same gospel songs before, played in the same way.
What Cash needed to do was go beyond the hymns he had grown up learning and search for a song that would evoke deeper meanings, the kind of song you’d sing with your last breath that would represent your time on earth.
Faced with the challenge, Cash sang a song he wrote while on tour with the Air Force in Germany, “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song about a prison he’d learned about in a movie. Cash and his band were signed and recorded a record that day, beginning their careers and the long road ahead.
“Folsom Prison Blues” epitomizes Cash’s sympathy for and connection with the everyman, the hard workers and the sinners. Unlike the conservative Christians of the day, Cash saw the need to reach out to those who’d lost their way or had a hard time staying on track, a firm belief that won him countless fans.
While on tour, Cash finally met June Carter, whom he’d admired since childhood. Both are married, though unhappily, and Cash immediately falls for her. “Walk the Line” chronicles the couple’s life together, through their respective rocky marriages and divorces. Cash’s wife, Vivian, was never fully supportive of his career because his touring took him away from his family, not to mention the fact that she could detect his attraction to June, who was now touring alongside Cash. Vivian demands his full attention at home and doesn’t want him discussing anything related to his tours or music. The demands from his wife and unrequited affection for June prove too much, and Cash turns to other women, alcohol and drugs to fill the void.
June is the strength Cash never had, the good that was in his brother Jack that he had longed for. When Cash is at the pit of his addiction and desperation, June ultimately remains by his side. He’s thrown in jail for his drug use, Vivian leaves him and his band mates leave him to solve his own problems. He stumbles through a stoned stupor for years until, finally, June decides to help him.
After years of recording and touring, Cash gets clean of his addictions and is ready to record again; this time, for a crowd he knows will support him no matter what. In 1968, he walked into Columbia Records, which he signed to not long after his initial success, and told his producers he wanted to record a live album at the Folsom Prison.
They thought he was crazy for wanting to play for that crowd, thinking it wouldn’t sell and that it wasn’t Christian. Cash’s reply was that if someone didn’t want to reach out to the inmates of Folsom, then it was they who weren’t Christian.
He’d received countless letters from inmates over the years, each thanking him for his music and describing how they felt a connection with his songs. The people who stood by him were the people who’d been through the same struggles Cash had. All were looking for a bit of understanding and, ultimately, redemption.
“Walk the Line” is conventional at times and will unfortunately be likened to “Ray,” last year’s biopic of Ray Charles. Both films deal with a legendary musician who struggles with infidelity and addiction in their earlier years, and both have wrap endings where words appear on screen describing the artist’s accomplishments. Unlike “Ray,” though, “Walk the Line” does a better job of humanizing the title character. The audience understands Cash’s struggles, regardless if they agree with his actions or not.
Cash’s and June’s music is spread throughout the film, sometimes with performances of an entire song. You’ll find your feet tapping during several of the numbers, and fans of Cash should be pleased with Phoenix, who sings Cash’s songs throughout. Witherspoon sings in the film as well, touches that add to the believability of the film. Phoenix’s impersonation of Cash is impressive, as is his vocal ability to hit Cash’s deep baritone.
Tributes to country music and the early years of rock ‘n’ roll are also thrown in the mix, with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison represented, all of whom toured with Cash. One scene shows Cash with a young Waylon Jennings, played by Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son. Waylon Payne, Waylon Jennings’ godson and the son of one of Willie Nelson’s guitarists, plays Jerry Lee Lewis. The film is not only a tribute to Cash’s life and music, but also to the music of his generation.
Phoenix and Witherspoon carry the film well, and Phoenix will no doubt receive award nominations for his portrayal. “Walk the Line” is a memorable film about a legendary man, and if you don’t already own a Johnny Cash album, after seeing the film you’ll likely go out and buy one.