Before Johnny Rotten there was Johnny Cash, the original punk, the Man in Black. Nobody dressed that way in the mid '50s. Elvis twitched in his gold lame suit, Jerry Lee Lewis had his golden curls and Roy Orbison hid behind big black glasses—compared to Cash, they were all poseurs.
And no one sang that way either. Those were the days of Doris Day, post-war big band sounds and Ol' Blue Eyes, all slick and carefully washed of any grime. Cash's voice was from somewhere else—ragged, a deep baritone that climbed down in the gutter and stayed there. The songs told stories of heartache, loss and despair, set on the "hopeless, hungry side of town."
This is the backdrop for Walk the Line, a film directed and co-written by , who based the screenplay on Cash's books Man in Black and , and his own conversations with John and his wife June, who both died in 2003.
plays Cash and takes on the role of June Carter. Rather than lip-synching, the actors sing all the songs themselves under the direction of music producer T Bone Burnett, whose guidance made the soundtrack a surprise success.
Cash knew there was a beast inside him, and what it meant to work out his salvation with fear and trembling.
While Phoenix's voice doesn't register quite as deep as Cash's and Witherspoon just ever-so-slightly misses that Clinch Mountain Carter Family sound, the results are surprisingly good. (You have to admire their bravado in taking on this daunting challenge). Vintage instruments and analog recordings reproduce a sound that crackles with authenticity. (Be sure to look for the actor portraying fellow outlaw Waylon Jennings: that's his son, Shooter.)
The story begins on the Cash family farm in Dyess, Arkansas, where picking Badlands cotton pays the bills. Cash, called J.R. by everyone, idolized his older brother and best friend, Jack, who dreams of being a preacher. However, the dream is cut short when a tragic accident takes Jack's life. According to father Ray (Robert Patrick), the wrong boy died that day—it should have been J.R. The death of his brother and his father's disapproval would haunt Cash the rest of his life.
Hoping to escape the dead end of sharecropping cotton, Cash enrolls in the Air Force and is shipped off to Germany. It's there he sees a film called , the inspiration for "Folsom Prison Blues", with one of the scariest lines still ever heard on radio, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." (It's rare to ever hear of someone dying in a country song these days, the Dixie Chicks' Goodbye Earl notwithstanding. By the way, the audience didn't really cheer when he sang that at Folsom. It was added later.)
Back stateside in '54, Cash gets married and moves to Memphis. To keep bread on the table, his babies fed, and to get his music career off the ground, he becomes a not-so-successful door-to-door salesman. Door after door is slammed in his face until one day he finds himself across the street from Sam Phillips' (Dallas Roberts) Sun Studio where Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) is cutting a record.
Witherspoon's emotional range and charming sensuality are compelling.
He makes his way around the back of the building where the door stands open a crack. Inside he sees Elvis ripping it up in the studio. Phillips is at the controls, making the sounds that would shake the world. He looks over his shoulder, sees Cash looking in and shuts the door in his face.
This is one door that won't stay closed. Cash knows he can't—won't—do anything else but music, so he gets an audience with Phillips, brings the band in and they audition an old gospel number. Not impressed, Phillips wants to know if that's all they've got because "Gospel doesn't sell." This is when Cash pulls out "Folsom Prison Blues". Now he's got Phillips' attention and with the release of "Folsom", Cash begins a string of hits that would include "Cry, Cry, Cry", "I Walk the Line" and "Home of the Blues."
It's a rags-to-excesses story from here. Touring with the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice) starts to take a toll. There are the girls at each stop, the booze after each show, and the amphetamines Cash soon needs to stay awake on the long drives from gig to gig. His wife back in California is feeling neglected. And to complicate things, he's met June Carter and he's falling in love. She, of the seminal Carter Family, led by matriarch Mother Maybelle, is also on the road, recovering from a messy divorce with Carl Smith and on her way to another failed marriage with a stock car driver.
June, too, is smitten, not only with the man but with what he does when he's on stage. She wants to know why he dresses in black, where he got that sound and how does he write those songs. His only reply is "it just all happened." She doesn't believe him.
Walk the Line doesn't gloss over the complications or the baggage that enters into this love story. No getting around it. John and June fell deeply in love with each other while they were both married.
As Cash's life spirals downward, June walks past him, over him and through him. Somehow though, she's always there when he needs her, an almost angelic presence in his life—exactly what he tells her after she sees him through the pain of kicking his amphetamine habit. In the midst of it all, she writes "Ring of Fire" which describes her feelings of falling in a "burning ring of fire. (Some trivia—when Cash recorded the song, the Mariachi horns were added after he heard them in a dream).
Phoenix shows the little boy in Cash, desperate for his father's approval and never getting it.
Those looking for the Johnny Cash who appeared alongside Billy Graham in the '70s and '80s will be disappointed. While clearly a man with strong faith in God, Cash fought personal demons all his life and made no bones about it. He knew there was a beast lurking inside him, and what it meant to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. Walk the Line doesn't package Cash's sins in a neat, little bundle.
But there are clear signposts of faith along the way for anyone paying attention. There is a telling moment after he cleans up his addiction to pills, when June takes him to church. As he hesitantly approaches, you can see that the doors to the church are open; the first time doors were open to him in the entire film. It's a glimpse of grace and a turning point. Instead of stumbling into opportunities, from then on he starts opening doors himself.
Revitalized and refreshed, Cash begins to pay attention to those who are paying attention to him. Letters from fans, many from prisoners such as those in Folsom, tell him how they identify with him as a man who has been behind bars. Although he served little time, the film conveys a sense of the interior prison Cash was confined to for many years because of his brother's death and his father's disapproval. (Fans of the Folsom Prison album will notice a letter to Cash from Glen Sherley, the prisoner in Folsom who wrote "Greystone Chapel", which Cash performs on the album.)
Cash decides the least he can do is go to prison and entertain these men. When he pitches the idea to the execs at Columbia Records (the label that would unceremoniously dump him a couple of decades later), they dismiss the idea.
"Your audience is Christian. Go play some gospel music. They don't want you singing to murderers and rapists." His response: "Well, maybe they're not Christians." Matthew 25 comes to mind.
So the date is booked: Jan 13, 1968, and the result is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, one of the best selling albums of all time, outselling the Beatles and spending 90 weeks on the charts. The concert is recreated in all its grit, from the dirty water prisoners have to drink, to Cash jokingly telling the prisoners that they can't say "shit or hell" because the concert is being recorded. You can see Cash connecting with these men because he knew first-hand what it was like to be in his own prison.
So, do you believe that's Johnny Cash reflected in the eyes of Joaquin Phoenix? After all, this isn't an easy man to portray. He's angry, desperate, lonely, afraid, horny, dumb-struck with love, and blown away by the fact that he can play music for a living—and that's in just a few scenes. What stands out is how Phoenix shows the little boy in Cash, desperate for his father's approval and never getting it. (Unlike the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Ray Cash isn't at all happy about his son's return).
Cash connected with these men because he knew what it was like to be in his own interior prison.
Best of all, Phoenix is a dead ringer for Cash playing live. The way he approaches the microphone, introduces himself with "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", handles his guitar like a gun slung over his shoulder. When he sings, his head bobs down, searching for that feeling, to quote Springsteen, "the notion deep inside that it ain't no sin to be alive" and he delivers each and every time. Yeah, Joaquin gets it.
And so does Reese Witherspoon. She's got the confidence and sass needed to pull off a role like June Carter Cash. After all, this is the woman who saved Johnny Cash's life. You need cohones to do that. Witherspoon's emotional range and charming sensuality are compelling. Not to mention, she can sing.
Writer Frederick Buechner has noted that, "History creates heroes. Saints seem to arrive under their own steam. Holiness happens." Walk the Line ends up capturing the startling novelty of these two rough-hewn saints whose music turned darkness into light for millions. Thank God things just happen that way.