Walk the Line (November, 2005)
A biopic of Johnny Cash, who died last year. Joaquin Phoenix
stars as the Man in Black, and a brunette Reese Witherspoon as his
wife, June Carter Cash.
Here's my column, which appeared in newspapers around November
By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
When Joaquin Phoenix utters those famous lines in the new film,
Walk the Line, you believe him.
Phoenix accomplishes something similar to what Jamie Foxx did in
his star-making turn last year as Ray Charles in Ray. He channels
a singer whose distinctive style seems inimitable.
And he does it brilliantly. Phoenix's performance enables the film
to convincingly convey Johnny Cash-his look, his mannerisms, his
But what about his history?
That's a tougher question to answer. Partly because Cash himself
was hard to pin down about what actually happened in his
life. He contradicted himself on many occasions, giving numerous
versions of key events and periods in his life.
Kris Kristofferson once said of Cash: "He's a walking contradiction,
partly truth and partly fiction."
Here's my attempt to sort out the truth from the fiction in Walk
Q. Was Cash's father really so tough on him?
A. Ray Cash was not a nice man, to put it mildly. An alcoholic,
he was physically abusive to his family. He was a cold man, constantly
belittling Johnny and his siblings. And perhaps worst of all, he
openly blamed Johnny for the accidental death of his beloved brother,
Jack, who died at fourteen in an accident with a circular saw.
Johnny never spoke publicly against his father, but in his autobiography,
written after his father's death, he allowed a slight tinge of bitterness
to color his account of him.
Q. In Cash's first audition, his choice to perform gospel songs
is challenged by the studio owner as insincere. Did that happen?
A. In the film, Sam Phillips challenges Cash to "sing something
you believe in," which leads Cash to abandon the gospel recordings
he had prepared and launch into some of the painfully honest songs
for which he would became famous.
The film's version makes for dramatic storytelling. But it is
just a story, nor reality. Although Cash claimed at one point
that he had sung only gospel in the audition, the studio's records
show that Cash's group played 'Folsom Prison Blues,' and other Cash-penned
songs for Phillips, who was impressed by their unusual, ragged sound
and signed them to a contract.
Q. Did Cash really tour with both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee
A. He did. All three were signed to Sun Records and toured together
briefly in the Fifties. They were rivals, but became friends, probably
because they had a lot in common.
All were Southern boys who had grown up in deeply religious households.
All enjoyed the typical vices of musicians-alcohol, drugs, womanizing.
But none of them ever stopped struggling with the contradictions
these offered to their fundamentalist upbringing.
Q. Johnny Cash is most often called John in the film. Which
did he prefer?
A. His immediate family called him J.R., but as an adult he was
John to those who knew him best. Johnny was a stage name suggested
by his first manager, who thought it sounded young and rebellious.
Cash was afraid it would sound childish. He needn't have worried.
Q. Was Cash really the bad boy this film implies?
A. Cash wasn't shy about admitting his sinful side, and neither
is the film. And it's all true-Cash was an absentee father who cheated
on his wife while touring, which was most of the time. He drank
too much, and regularly trashed hotel rooms or concert venues while
on tour. And he essentially abandoned his first wife to force her,
a staunch Catholic, to seek a divorce.
But his most serious problem was his amphetamine addiction, which
he didn't kick until 1968. While under the drug's influence, he
missed recording sessions, showed up incoherent to concerts, and
pushed his body to the brink of destruction.
Q. Was his love for June Carter the reason he quit?
A. June Carter had been in a covert relationship with Cash for years,
and she and her family, to whom Cash was close, had cajoled, consoled,
and threatened Cash for years to give up the drugs, to no effect.
Finally, in 1968, Cash was ready to accept help. Why then? The
film doesn't say. And Cash himself gave differing explanations.
Certainly his love for June-who had sworn not to marry him until
he was clean-helped. But maybe the best answer is that Cash had
reached his lowest point. It was either kick the drugs or die.
Q. Did the final scene between June and Johnny really happen
A. I don't like to reveal spoilers, so I'll just say-yep, it happened
just like that. And wasn't it sweet?
Q. What's a good book for more information?
A. Try The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner.