Reviewed by: Chris Monroe
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, a division of The Walt Disney Company
Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “He picked cotton, sold door to door, and served in the Air Force. He was a voice of rebellion that changed the face of rock and roll. An outlaw before today’s rebels were born—and an icon they would never forget. He did all this before turning 30. And his name was Johnny Cash. WALK THE LINE explores the early years of the music legend, an artist who transcended musical boundaries to touch people around the globe. As his music changed the world, Cash’s own world was rocked by the woman who became the love of his life: June Carter.
The story begins in Depression-era Arkansas, tracing the origins of Cash’s sound back to his beginnings as a sharecropper’s son; moves through his wild tours with rock and roll pioneers Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Waylon Jennings; and culminates in his unforgettable 1968 concert in Folsom Prison. He became the hottest artist of the day, outselling even the Beatles. WALK THE LINE chronicles the birth of a new kind of American artist who had to move past raw anger, the ravages of addiction, and the temptations of stardom to discover the voice that would make him a hero to generations. Those early years encompass the themes that ran through Cash’s music and minimalist style: death, love, treachery, sin, hope and faith.”
Director James Mangold explains that he sees three main threads running through his biography film about real life “Man in Black” Johnny Cash. “Walk the Line” focuses primarily on Johnny Cash’s music career, his bout with drug abuse, and his romantic love with fellow musician and eventual wife June Carter. The story is a rather rigorous one, emphasizing Cash’s struggle with various addictive substances, but does manage to provide a glimpse into the redemptive work that finally works itself out in his life.
Beginning and ending with Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) performing his famous Folsom Prison concert, the rest of the story is primarily a flashback of how this rough-and-tumble musician began his career and helped shape the face of country music as we know it today. Not shying away from his broken marriage or his lengthy struggle with drugs and alcohol, the story also includes such positive aspects as how he was discovered as a musician and how he found a love that helped lift him out of the mire. The film ends in 1968, but in some respects Johnny Cash’s life was only just beginning.
As the scriptwriter and director for the film, James Mangold defended his reason for choosing to tell about this particular time of Johnny Cash’s life because, as we know, story has to be about conflict. Mangold describes this time of Cash’s life as the time when he was pushing God away and basically destroying himself. Throughout the whole film we see him in conflict with his dad, with his first wife, with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and even with himself. It isn’t until the end then that we finally see his life being restored.
Included in the film are a few situations that one may want to be aware of. Many scenes show Cash popping pills and drinking alcohol, as well as bumbling around under the influence of these substances. There are a few instances of foul language, including the Lord’s name being taken in vain and the use of the f-word. John is also alluded to having affairs with girls while on tour, and sleeps with June while he is still married to his first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin). There is no nudity, but this film unapologetically details the failures and foibles of this man’s life.
Before Cash’s fame and success, his life was quite innocent and pure. He and his wife Vivian struggle to make ends meet while John works various jobs and plays music with his friends on the side. The music he first learns and plays is Gospel music, inspired perhaps by the hymnal his mother gave him, which he also familiarized himself with while growing up. Gospel music is also what he first plays when he auditions for a record producer the day he is discovered.
However, the music that made Johnny Cash famous was not Gospel music, initially. When Johnny Cash and his band audition for record producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) with a song about how Jesus saved his soul, Phillips tells him that he doesn’t believe John when he sings it. Phillips tells John that Gospel music is not selling, and that he wants him to sing something that is “real” because that is what is going to sell. So, John changes his tune, literally. Phillips also adds that it’s not about God, but about believing in yourself. This makes me wonder, if things did happen just like this, how Johnny Cash’s life would have been different if he had decided to stick with Gospel music.
It is also well known that John’s faith in God and in Christ Jesus had the biggest impact on his life, and is what helped turn him around for good. This critical aspect is somewhat inferred, but it seems to be overshadowed by the emphasis placed on John and June’s love for each other. Mangold said that he thinks it is June that ultimately saves John’s life. But following the turning point where June rescues John out of the lake, the two are shown attending a church service.
The acting and singing are quite impressive in this biography picture. Since so much is known about Johnny Cash, and since people are so familiar with his voice and music, the task of portraying him is quite daunting. Phoenix faithfully executes various nuances of Johnny Cash, as does Witherspoon in portraying June Carter—and both sing their parts excellently. Mangold explains that he sees a great asset in having the actors sing these parts (instead of using a voice double) because this way the actors have an outlet to express so much more of their characters.
“Walk the Line” is a real life, honest look at Johnny Cash’s life. It has it’s entertainment, as well as a heavy dose of scenes about drugs. The performances are great, but the lack of focus on John’s spiritual life, specifically with his faith in Christ, is disappointing. Overall, though, it is a redemptive story.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.