WALK THE LINE
It’s been a long while since there has been a movie release that actually made me want to leave my cave and go to a theatre. And now, in the span of a month or so, there are two. The next one is December 9th, when I will probably skip work to attend the very first showing available for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. But the first one was Walk The Line, the biopic of the great Johnny Cash, which opened back in November. I finally got to see it this weekend. It did not disappoint.
There’s a connection between the two movies. Well, for me there is. CS Lewis and Johnny Cash both occupy a sort of “spiritual father” role in my life. CS Lewis, as he has done for so many, drew me toward a belief in God and the Christian religion that was both rational and well-informed. Atheism has never been in my nature, but I wallowed for a long time in a sort of hopeless agnosticism; never having the courage to disbelieve, but never having the courage to fully believe, either.
Johnny Cash, on the other hand, helped me to reconcile myself with my darker side. I’ve been a major screw-up at certain times in my life, there’s no way around it. But for too long I let my screw-ups define who I was, instead of letting them go and growing past them. I wasn’t comfortable unless I was browbeating myself over and over for the same sins. Or, to paraphrase Matt Groening, I wasn’t going to stop torturing myself until I discovered the source of my pain. I was forgiven but lacked a knowledge of redemption. And nobody can convey a message of redemption like Johnny Cash. If you’re in a similar situation as the one I’ve just described, stop what you’re doing, get in your car, and go buy a copy of American Recordings before you do another thing. Seriously, go do it now. Why are you still reading this? Go now!
Anyway, I had to go see this movie, which covers the great man’s life from childhood to his marriage to June Carter in 1968. Carrying a lot of guilt over the accidental death of his brother, and suffering under the abuse and disapproval of his father, Cash sought redemption in love and music. He found love with his first wife Vivian, and found, initially. success rather than redemption from music. Music cost him Vivian, both in terms of his lack of ability to handle fame and fortune, and the fact that he fell in love with June Carter while touring with her throughout the late 50′s and on through the 60′s.
Keep in mind, as you watch the movie, that it was based on Cash’s autobiography and was produced by his son, John Carter Cash. Despite these facts, this film is categorically not hagiography. Most modern stars would have been sure to make themselves look good in a movie they basically had artistic control over. Not Johnny Cash; he allowed himself to come off as stupid, vain, adulterous, self-centered and mean in this movie. But he also allows us to see his redemption at the hands of God, through the love of a woman. This movie could just as well be the June Carter story, for that matter. She is stronger than Johnny throughout, but still not portrayed as a saint. She’s merely a good woman who had enough love for herself not to be dragged down by the man’s darkness, and enough love for him that she was able, almost literally, to lift him out of the slough of despond. Oh, and if you’ve ever said a harsh word about Reese Witherspoon: take it back. Take it back now. The lady can act. I’ll always love her now that I’ve seen her play June Carter Cash. She’ll always be a favorite. And if she doesn’t win an Oscar, well then they should just quit giving them out.
Since Jamie Foxx won the Oscar last year playing Ray Charles so brilliantly, it seems unlikely that Joaquin Phoenix will win for nailing down Johnny Cash so brilliantly this year. But boy, he ought to. The movie begins with him in a little wood shop at Folsom Prison, making the crowd of prisoners wait for an encore as he silently remembers the events that led him to this memorable show inside the walls of America’s toughest prison. Then the movie tells its story, and at the end we see him again, still in the little wood shop, listening to the Warden ask him not to sing any more songs that will “remind the men that they’re in prison”. Phoenix shoots him a sidelong glance and says, perfectly, “You think they forgot?” And then he proceeds back out on the stage and sings a version of “Cocaine Blues” that, if this is even possible, is better than the one on the actual “Johnny Cash at Folsom” album. It gave me chills. It brought tears to my eyes. Because that’s what Johnny Cash was like. “Oh, you’re in prison? Well then I’m gonna sing a song about a guy who got thrown in prison. How does that grab ya, Warden?”.
The man was imperfect, and he knew it. He was a sinner, and a rascal, and a bit of an ass. And he wanted us to know it, if for no other reason than to tell us “Hey, I got past it, and you can get past it too.”
Oddly, now that I think about it, it isn’t easy for me to recommend the movie, because I’m not sure if anyone who doesn’t already love the man will even like it. I just can’t get a feel for what it would be like to see it under those circumstances. I don’t know that I would’ve liked it had I never heard Down There By The Train, Folsom Prison Blues, or Long Black Veil. Who can tell? But then, I can’t even imagine not loving Johnny Cash.
I can say one thing without much fear of contradiction, though. If you’re going to the movies anyway, you can’t spend your money on anything better right now. Until, maybe, December 9th.