A young Johnny Cash, growing up in Depression-era Arkansas, loves listening to music on the radio with his older brother, Jack. The boys’ sharecropper dad, whose days consist of hard toil in the cotton fields, doesn’t see the point of music at all, though. And he clearly favors Jack. So when Jack is accidentally killed, the grief-stricken father indirectly blames Johnny.
Johnny grows up and joins the Air Force, where he teaches himself to play guitar and begins to write songs of heartache and despair. He marries a girl he barely knows, Vivian, and moves to Memphis, Tenn., to make his mark in music. It’s a fertile time to be in that city. Along with other up-and-coming musicians creating a new sound—including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison—Johnny signs a contract with Sun Records and becomes a music star. The price? A relentless touring schedule that leads Cash to start popping pills just to keep up. All that time away from home also starts to put a strain on his marriage.
That strain sets the stage for what happens when he meets June Carter (of the legendary Carter Family gospel singers). There’s an instant attraction between the two, but she’s just coming out of a bad divorce, and he’s still married to Vivian. Commercial success and a growing attraction to June leads Johnny to walk a fine line: between self-control and addiction, between his family and a flirtatious affair. It’s a line he can’t walk for very long. The only question is on which side he will fall.
The Carter family—June and her parents, Maybelle and Ezra—are walking examples of Christian charity when they set aside any distaste they might have for Johnny’s self-destructive antics and nurse him back to health and sobriety. June explains simply, “I had a friend who needed help.”
Johnny’s mom, Carrie, is a steady, loving presence in his life, even in his adult years. She introduced Johnny to the Christian faith, and even as he struggles with drug addiction and a failing marriage, she never abandons him. On the other hand, Johnny’s dad is a negative example of what a bad father can do to a son, as Johnny never quite gets over not just the death of his brother but his dad’s resulting rejection.
Another negative example arrives in the form of Johnny and Vivian's marital relationship. It's driven home time and time again just how damaging a "cheatin' heart" is to a couple's future. It's shown that long periods of time away from a spouse opens you up to temptation and that when husbands and wives withhold support and appreciation, disaster follows.
Johnny lives out Hebrews 13:3 (“Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering”), responding to prisoners who write to him and giving a concert to cheer them up.
Jack wants to be a preacher when he grows up, and young Johnny idolizes him for that. “You know every story in Scripture,” he tells Jack. Graciously, Jack responds, “But you know every song in Mama’s hymnal.” (Their mother encourages Johnny's love for music by teaching him hymns.)
As Jack dies, he asks, “Can you hear them angels? They’re so beautiful.” Johnny’s dad, in despair over Jack’s death, says, “The devil did this.”
We hear several gospel songs, including “I Was There When It Happened” (“Yes, I know when Jesus saved me/He took away my sins/Gave me peace within”). We also hear Bob Dylan’s “Highway ‘61 Revisited” (“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’/God say, ‘No’/Abe say, ‘What?’/God say, ‘You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin’/You better run’”).
Jerry Lee Lewis (cousin to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, by the way) goes off on a rant about himself and his fellow musicians, saying they’re all going to hell because of the songs they sing. “God showed us a great big apple and said don’t touch it,” he explains. “He didn’t say you could touch it once in a while. He didn’t say we could think about touching it or sing songs about thinking about touching it.”
Legendary record producer Sam Phillips indicates how stupid it is to sing about faith without truly believing. Then he says, “It ain’t got nothing to do with God, Mr. Cash. It’s about believing in yourself.” Much later, a record executive tries to talk Johnny out of performing at Folsom Prison: “Your fans are Christians. They don’t want to hear you singing to murderers and rapists, trying to cheer them up.” Johnny responds, “Then they’re not Christians.”
A woman ungraciously condemns June for being divorced. “Your ma and pa are good Christians. I’m surprised they still talk to you after your divorce," she says. "Divorce is an abomination.”
After Johnny finally wakes up sober under the watchful eyes of the Carters, he tells June that he doesn't deserve such kindness and he should have been left to die. June counters, “God has given you a second chance to make things right.”
June gives Johnny a copy of The Prophet by the mystic Kahlil Gibran.
As Johnny becomes successful, several scenes show groupies coming backstage to meet him, and in one instance Johnny kisses the girl as the camera cuts away, implying that sex is to follow. Johnny’s wife complains that fan mail from girls is “obscene” and often contains pictures of them in their bathing suits.
Johnny tries to kiss June at her hotel room door, and there’s considerable sexual tension between them over the course of their 10 years of touring together. They finally end up in bed together with him in a T-shirt and her in a camisole. (Incidentally, for years they insisted that they never slept together while touring. But as this film was being written, they finally confessed that they gave in to temptation that one time in Las Vegas.)
While high on amphetamines Johnny tears up his dressing room in a fit of rage. An argument with Vivian turns physical, with her slapping at him; he pins her to the ground and shouts into her face and seems ready to strike her before his children’s cries stop him. June angrily throws empty beer bottles at Johnny and band mates.
June’s dad threatens a drug dealer with a shotgun. We see Johnny’s brother dying in bed wrapped in bloody bandages. Johnny watches a movie that features a fight scene in Folsom Prison. One of the band members constructs a homemade bomb as a prank, and he blows a limb off a tree with it. In a drunken rage Johnny drives a tractor into a lake. In a flashback, Johnny and Jack’s dad threatens to beat them if they don’t turn off the radio and go to bed.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Two s-words. And a handful of other, milder crudities. God's and Jesus’ names are abused once each. A musician contemptuously refers to “n-gger” music.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Johnny became addicted to uppers and downers fairly early in his musical career. In fact, the movie implies that Elvis introduced him to amphetamines. There are many scenes of Johnny drinking beer and washing down pills with beer or booze. His fellow musicians drink prodigiously, too, and we see the aftermath of an all-night drinking party, with smashed beer bottles and drunken musicians.
Johnny sneaks into Mexico to buy drugs and is arrested for possession upon crossing back into the States. (In reel life we never hear what happened to those drug charges, but in real life he received probation.) A drug dealer delivers a package to Johnny’s house, and Johnny apparently got a willing physician to write prescriptions for these drugs, too, as we see several prescription vials on his bedside stand.
Many characters smoke cigarettes, including Johnny. Johnny's dad chews tobacco.
Johnny Cash was many things. Groundbreaking singer-songwriter. Drug addict. Adulterer. Failed father. Hurting son. Compassionate man and, ultimately, lover of the Lord. Writer and director James Mangold has done a serviceable job of capturing all of these character traits except the last one.
Johnny's story—the whole story, that is—is a hopeful one, because it’s about redemption. Mangold hints at this in Walk the Line, but moviegoers are left thinking that salvation came not from Jesus, but rather from a hit record recorded live at Folsom Prison.
That's not fair and it's not true. As Johnny explained in his autobiography, Man in Black, the influence of his brother’s faith had never quite left him: “Jack’s death, his vision of heaven, has been more of an inspiration to me than anything that has ever come to me through any man.” He later wrote, “How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man.”
Mangold, though, was much too interested in Johnny and June's love affair with each other to spend much time on what God was preparing them for.
And what of that early affair? Mangold thinks it was "magical": “There was something magical about the idea that for a decade the only place John and June were allowed to be alone together was onstage in front of 10,000 people.” Allowed? He makes marriage vows sound like shackles. Sure, Johnny and Vivian entered marriage foolishly, but they took their vows while in full possession of their faculties. Johnny and June ultimately racked up three wrecked marriages between them, and that makes it pretty hard to rejoice with them when they finally fall into each others arms seconds before the credits roll.
Johnny was certainly walking on the wide road then. But he made his way to the narrow path before he died. And one can scarcely doubt that he is now enjoying his heavenly rest. It’s a shame that the makers of Walk the Line couldn’t somehow manage to work that into the end of their version of his life.