I like to cultivate eclectic tastes. I find delight in variety, and proof of the amazing wideness of God’s love for His creation. In one form or another, everything is His. We tend to credit an artist for producing an incredible work, but there would be no Mona Lisa without God first forming Leonardo da Vinci in his mother’s womb. I also believe that God speaks to each of us through the way we are moved by what we consume, culturally speaking. Those that bring us joy can serve to bring us closer to Him, assuming your heart is in the right place. Those that cause us unease might best be avoided. There is, of course, a third category, a full spectrum of things that have little to no impact on us. This is where the music of Johnny Cash has always fallen for me. I neither like nor dislike it. Still, I enjoy the relatively recent biopic about him, Walk the Line (2005), and allow me to explain the reasons why.
John R. Cash’s (Ridge Canipe), J.R. more familiarly to family and friends, early life is spent on a sharecropper’s farm in rural Arkansas. This is revealed in a flashback because Walk the Line opens with the grown-up version (Joaquin Phoenix) giving a concert to the inmates at Folsom State Prison. As he fingers a table saw blade in the jail’s shop, he remembers his relationship with his brother Jack (Lucas Till) and how the older boy had tragically died in a sawmill accident. His domineering father, Ray (Robert Patrick), in his grief says that God took the wrong son. This bitterness does not seem to go away, and he barely acknowledges J.R. when he leaves to serve overseas in the United States Air Force. While stationed in Germany, he stays in touch with his sweetheart back home, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), promising to marry her as soon as he gets out of the military. To pass the time, he purchases a guitar and begins writing songs. When he returns to the United States, he makes good on his promise to Vivian, and they move to Memphis, Tennessee. In between struggling as a door-to-door salesman, J.R. puts together a band in order to pursue his dream of being a musician. His dabbling in music puts a strain on his marriage because Vivian expects him to make a more stable living for their growing family. Things appear to be on the verge of disaster until he manages to get an audition for a local record producer, Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). Their initial repertoire of tried and true gospel songs is about to fall on deaf ears until J.R. starts playing the song that is to put him on the map one day, one that he wrote while in the military, “Folsom Prison Blues.” An instant hit, it earns a place for his band on a tour circuit that also encompassed the early careers of a young Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton). The tourmate that catches J.R.’s eye is June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a member of the famous Carter family of country/folk musicians and somebody he had followed in magazines and other media his entire life. His eye has begun to wander because Vivian, despite having the trappings of wealth from J.R.’s career, increasingly puts pressure on him when he is at home and not on tour. He tries to be romantic, but all she does is remind of the obscene letters female fans send him. Thus, he does not stay faithful to her while he is on the road. Initially, his affections center on June, though between her own marriage problems and not wanting to cause trouble for another, she rebuffs him. This sends him into a string of bad behaviors that, aside from cheating on his wife, leads him to an addiction to prescription pills. Things unravel in earnest when June finds out about his addiction, causing her to quit their duo act. Next, Vivian divorces him and takes the children. J.R. spends the next couple of years adrift in Tennessee, wasting away his life and living with Waylon Jennings (Shooter Jennings). J.R. does not give up on his feelings for June, however. Still, it takes him buying a large house nearby and a Thanksgiving confrontation with his father for him to finally face his demons. Luckily, June is there to help. After he is able to discard his pill habit, they go back on tour, and this is where the film catches up to the beginning. Despite his turn around, June will not agree to marry him. Only by proposing on stage does he get the answer he so long sought, and the rest is history.
Speaking of history, as a brief aside, if you are not aware of the importance of the Carter family to American music, you should do some extra research. Walk the Line barely does it justice, which is understandable given that it is supposed to be about Johnny Cash and not the Carters. And just so we are clear, I mean the musical family that got their fame in the 1920s and not the rapper Sean Carter, more commonly known as Jay-Z. You do see June’s mother Maybelle (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) in the film, but it says nothing of her huge influence on several generations of musicians. I am not able to play any instrument (despite a couple years of piano lessons), but my mind is blown when I think about Maybelle’s trademark “Carter scratch.” Any song you listen to has a melody and a harmony. Usually, they are played by different people on separate instruments. Maybelle came up with playing both of them herself on the same guitar. I mean, some people have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time, forget playing two different parts of a song at once on the same instrument. And this is all without even mentioning the rest of her family, who were giants in country music when J.R. was growing up. You get the briefest of senses of it when J.R. listens to a child June singing on the radio, but that is it. They are the most important musical family about which you likely know nothing.
Though I have discussed redemption in other films, this theme is quite evident in Walk the Line. It bears a little more inspection from a Christian perspective, though. Interestingly, when J.R.’s life begins spiraling out of his control, there is clearly a separation from God. Up until then, he had been raised on scripture, and when his band tried to play their music for Sam Phillips, they were all Gospel songs. The record producer’s initial rejection causes J.R. to defend his Christian beliefs. There is also a scene where, as he begins cheating on his wife and popping pills, he defers to his father to say a prayer at the dinner table. Yet, when he finally overcomes his struggles, the first place June takes him is to church. The rest of the film makes little comment on this aspect of Johnny Cash’s life, but I would add that he was a devout Christian. You may not know it from listening to some of his songs, or watching the movie, but he had a relationship with God.
Walk the Line falls into some familiar story telling formats that intersect with how they present the lives of many famous people, mostly musicians. While the glitz and glamour seem inviting, their lives are often filled with tragedy. Johnny Cash’s life was no different in this regard, and it makes it hard to watch the movie at times. Still, if you can get through those parts, the happy ending makes it worth it. Such is true for our own lives.