Last night I watched “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time. This movie is a biopic of the life of Johnny Cash from his younger years as a poor child of a sharecropper, through his dark years of addiction and a failing family life, to his eventual proposal to June Carter. I enjoyed it very much and several details of his younger life come into play in his later years. This is a movie that I would suggest you watch more than once and I suspect you’d pick up on more things as you watch it again.
One such pivotal event in his life was his audition for Sun Records, which is shared in this post. Johnny and his band are playing the gospel song they have been practicing together for just this moment and the producer cuts them off to tell them that he wouldn’t be interested in music that won’t sell. Their song was already well known and was a radio staple with other bands performing it and there was no angle for Johnny to approach it that would set it apart from the others. Or as the producer said, “I don’t believe you.”
This belief had nothing to do with the sincerity of Cash’s belief in God, but in the way that his belief was presented within the song. It had been rehearsed to the point where the genuineness, the emotion, of the song was stripped out. That, and the market saturation of such songs, was going to be the premature doom of Johnny Cash’s career and he needed something that was relatable right at that moment or his band would be wished a good day and he would either go back to selling items door to door or he would take a job at his father in law’s business.
He sang “Folsom Prison Blues” on his own, since his band wasn’t familiar with the song yet, and the rest is history. As the movie progresses, he understands the plight of prisoners more and more as his behavior takes him down a path where he can identify with outlaws and outcasts on a more personal level. And the ill-advised concert inside Folsom Prison marks the point in the story where he comes full circle, embracing his outlaw identity and reclaiming his status as one of the biggest stars in the history of these United States of America.
His success really developed when he stopped singing the same songs as everybody else and sang out of his own experience as a poor child raised during the Great Depression, acquainted with death and sorrow, and never quite being accepted by his own father. It was out of this underlying desperation that he was able to sing a song that caused the producer to believe him enough to sign him to a contract. And it was this desperation and the success that he chased that took him down many dark paths.
It struck me that much of the arts that we have enjoyed in the last few generations have been inspired by hardship. People tend to celebrate that which they identify with, and celebrations often take the form of song. Where is the next great blues act going to come from or will new examples of this expression fade into disingenuousness? How can you sing about the summer days of youth when your childhood was spent looking at a screen? What kind of believable artistic expression comes out of a culture of uninhibited hedonistic desires with internally rejected consequences?
I’m glad I watched this movie. It told a compelling story and did not sugar coat Johnny Cash. It did not overlook the fallout of his choices or place the blame for the outcomes elsewhere. It made me think. It made me feel. It made me care. The movie has been out a good decade now. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and look it up!