The Source for Parents

Movie Reviews
by Jonathan McKee

Walk the Line (2/28/2006)

Rated PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.

Directed by James Mangold (Identity, Kate and Leopold, Girl Interrupted and Cop Land.)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick…

Jonathan's Rating: Worth Buying

Just before his death in 2003, a 70 plus year-old Johnny Cash made an award winning music video to his song Hurt that captured the emotion and the respect of America… even the MTV generation. Many of us didn’t know the whole story behind this music video, the chronicles of the “hurt” in the life of the Man in Black. Walk the Line is “the rest of the story.”

Walk the Line was beyond my expectations. It’s real, it’s raw… and it’s relevant to a hurting culture looking for happiness in temporary thrills.

I don’t own any Johnny Cash albums and I’ve never read any books about him. The day I saw Walk the Line I went home and Amazon’d a book about his life and clicked straight over to browse through the collections of his hits on CD.

Walk the Line covers a period of time in Cash’s life that many don’t know about. The movie focuses on the circumstances surrounding a young Johnny leaving home to go into the military, his rise to stardom, and his decent into an amphetamine addiction. The film ends around the time of Cash’s famous live concert recording in Folsom Prison. The story ends with the end of his alter ego “Cash” and the beginning of the man that June called “John.”

Some have compared this film to Ray, others to A Coal Miners Daughter, neither are bad comparisons. But Walk the Line was more than just another powerful biography about the rise and fall of a great musician… Walk the Line was a unique love story. The film tells the true story of a girl named June and a young man dressed in all black named Johnny. They traveled together from one gig to the next in a car with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others. Through the good and bad, June and Johnny developed a friendship and eventually a love that lasted for a lifetime.

Director James Mangold couldn’t have found anyone better than Reese Witherspoon to play June Carter… the character that we know in recent days as the late June Carter Cash. Most people knew the end of the story by her name alone- but many didn’t know how she acquired that name. Witherspoon gives you a glimpse beyond the humor and into the heart of the animated, witty southern doll. But she also brings a fun element to the film as June often did in Johnny’s life during dark times. She’ll have you in stitches with her one liners and- my favorite- her rules for proposing.

Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash and the Oscars had better take notice. I’ve always had an eye on Phoenix’s ability. I’ve mentioned before—from his childhood performance in Parenthood to his Oscar nominated performance in Gladiator—Phoenix always delivers. In Walk the Line he transforms again, this time into the Man in Black. And Joaquin’s Cash delivers a few one liners of his own. In one scene someone refers to June as his wife. Cash replies, “That’s not my wife. I keep asking her, and she keeps saying ‘no!’”

But even more amazing is the fact that Witherspoon and Phoenix performed every musical number in the film, Phoenix even learning guitar for the role. Director James Mangold didn’t want the “mechanical” look of lip-syncing, but knew it would be hard to copy the very unique voice of Cash in particular. Yet he felt that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon could capture what he wanted by focusing on the characters’ and music’s emotional sincerity.

Mangold explains: “I focused on music as an expression of character – the idea that a song is coming from what the singer is feeling in life and an inability to get to that emotion any other way. And how do you do that? I felt that in order to see John creating his songs, you couldn’t just push a button on a tape recorder to make it happen. I wanted to see ‘Folsom Prison’ born in the barracks of a German military base. I wanted to see John’s audition for Sam Phillips, in which he was standing there like he was naked, warts and all – an inexperienced guy throwing himself out there.”

Mangold brought a lot to this picture. Audiences and critics have loved most of his previous films including Identity, Kate and Leopold, Girl Interrupted and Cop Land. I can’t help but agree.

Audiences will love Walk the Line on so many levels: a love story, a journey into the history of music, and a powerful biography of an intriguing man.

I would take a teenager to see the film with me so we could talk about it afterwards. There are some great discussions that surface from the film anywhere from drug addictions to the empty temporary thrills that we seek in life. But Walk the Line isn’t for young kids, mostly because they won’t understand it.

One of the difficult subjects to talk about might be the subject of divorce. It’s ironic, conservative Christians across the country love Johnny and June Carter Cash. But many of those very same people were the ones that were judging them both harshly during the mistakes in their life. Is divorce wrong? Yes. Does God wipe our past clean and still use us, warts and all? (pardon the expression) Yes.

Something Worth Your While:
If you’re like me… once you see this film you’ll want to know a little more about the Man in Black. Many Christians who watch the film might wonder where his faith came into the picture. Dave Urbanski, a talented author working for Zondervan, wrote an insightful book about the spiritual journey of Johnny Cash… a book that sheds a lot of light on these questions. CLICK HERE for that book.

Conversation Starter
Three Simple Questions (with Answers You May Be Looking for):

  1. What are some of the messages or themes you observed in this movie?

  2. How do you suppose we—as serious Christ-followers—should react to this movie?

  3. How can we move from healthy, Bible-based opinions about this movie to actually living out those opinions?

Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, and You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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