One always trembles a bit to learn that Hollywood is to offer its take on something that one reveres, whether it be a novel or, as is the case for me with this film on Johnny Cash, a hero. Hollywood biopics tend to shape a life to fit the mold of mainstream script formula. Though “Walk the Line” walks a line well-trodden by last year’s “Ray” (and walks it all the way to the Oscars, its producers no doubt hope), like that film it transcends its clichés to become a celebration of the art of one of the true giants of American music.
Though both films depict artists in throe with their demons, “Walk” parts paths with “Ray” in that here redemption comes through love. The union of Cash and June Carter of the legendary Carter Family was by all accounts one of true soul mates. Cash himself once put it like this: “June and I met back stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. She was already a veteran in country music, having performed with her family since she was six years old...She is my wife, lover, friend, and my biggest critic...We work things out; heart to heart, soul to soul. We're in love.” This film follows them through years when involvements with others and Johnny’s raging amphetamine habit kept them apart, and leaves off in 1968, the year of their marriage. Thereafter they were together until June died in May of 2003; Johnny died four months later.
The film leaves middlebrow Oscar-mongering in the dust in its musical performances. Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as Carter did their own singing and playing, which evinces a certain amount of mad courage on Phoenix’s part: can you imagine trying to approximate that voice that sounded like it came from “the middle of the earth” as Bob Dylan memorably put it? He more than acquits himself, conveying with brio the visceral exhilaration of Cash’s transgressive repertoire: “Early one morning while I’m making the rounds/I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.”
As June, Witherspoon has a less imposing voice to mimic: June could bring some grit to a song but by her own admission she learned to be funny on stage to compensate for not really being able to carry a tune. A fine comic actress, Witherspoon captures Carter’s gift as a comedienne. Together, the leads do spirited renditions of the hit duet “Jackson” and Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Their coach was the film’s music producer T-Bone Burnett, who yields to no one in his understanding of and feel for American roots music (he produced the “O Brother” soundtrack, for one).
I wanted to paraphrase an exchange of lines in which the filmmakers have perfectly captured what Cash was all about. A record company exec advises Johnny, who proposes to make an album of one of his legendary concert appearances at Folsom Prison, as follows: Cash, a lot of your fans are Christians who don’t think it’s such a hot idea for you to be singing for a bunch of murderers and rapists, trying to cheer ‘em up. Without missing a beat, Johnny replies: well, they’re not real Christians then.
Along these lines, though it may be tangential to a discussion of this film, I wanted to excerpt from the remarkable liner notes June wrote in 2000 for the CD reissue of their 1969 concert at San Quentin prison, because her words offer a powerful illustration of the couple’s bond and also evince a profoundly non-judgmental, challenging form of Christianity that stirs me to my depths, and which is in such stark contrast to the bogus variety that mostly obtains in this country which hurts my brain and stomach:
“We had come to see the lost and lonely ones. I had married this man, Johnny Cash, and there was something in him that drew him to these men…I’m still searching deeper into the soul of this man for the light that shines somewhere within him. It is the light that only the faithful know…‘San Quentin is a hell hole,’ John whispered to me. ‘It ought to rot and burn in hell for all the good it does.’ ‘So write it,’ I said. Surely we’re here for some reason. There ought to be some way for redemption for these men...I’d never felt such a burden on my husband’s heart, and I’d certainly never felt such a burden on mine. I held tighter to his hand and I was still afraid. I remember praying: ‘Lord, God, help us all and show us the way’…If you’re a woman visiting a prison, you have crazy ideas…Some men are here for armed robbery, rape, pedophilia, arson, murder…‘Oh Lord,’ I cried. For I could still see all the men jumping on my bones, and my sisters’ bones, too. They were beautiful girls...You use your imagination, we’re all in a state of wickedness, we’re condemned sinners…We were all cut and scarred, warped and bent.”
I thought I'd close with excerpts from Bob Dylan’s eloquent statement on his old friend’s passing in ’03:
“In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him -- the greatest of the greats then and now…‘I Walk the Line’ had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’ can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it…If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul…Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he'll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet -- especially those persons -- and that is forever.”
- Dec 7, 2005