I remember distinctly, where I was and how I felt when I first heard that Johnny Cash was gone. Standing in the archway between our living room and kitchen, twisting a dishrag in my hands as I watched the news scroll across the bottom of the television screen, my heart sank. It's one of those things we all accept but can never quite explain; how the passing of an icon can affect us on a deeply personal level.
Later that night, Remy and I sat out on the porch with a bottle of whiskey, listening to the most haunting track of Johnny's final CD, his cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" and trying to figure out just what it was that set him apart, and what manner of magic he possessed, lifting him to legendary status and compelling two California kids like us to take his passing so damn personally.
Two short years later, we were lined up at the box office, paying homage to that magic. Who could resist? Especially when they put attractive "now" faces on legendary "then" icons, and tempt us with a glimpse of a black boot, a guitar held like a rifle, and that odd, half-mouth grimace behind a microphone. It's a rare thing to sell three generations of America on a film with a mere 30 seconds of shadows and hinting. It is rarer still to follow up such promises with both substance and style. Thankfully, "Walk the Line" delivers on both.
Coming out of the theater, the woman behind us proclaimed "Walk the Line" to be "The white 'Ray'" and indeed, their similarities seem lifted from of that now clichéd VH-1 "Behind the Music" format. Poor but talented boy makes it big, struggles with fame and excess, and somehow manages to come shining out the other side. Of course in Johnny's case, that "somehow manages" is personified in June Carter.
Of all the great love stories in the history of love stories, you couldn't write one better than June Carter and Johnny Cash. And more than anything else it might be, "Walk the Line" is, at its heart, a love story of mythic proportions. As an examination of Cash's legendary mystique, however, "Walk The Line" fails to hit the mark. It never attains the emotional complexity of "Capote," nor does it even attempt to touch upon the later years of his life, upon the Johnny Cash that I remember, with grim determination and that gritty, deep strength.
I suppose it's a testament to the filmmakers that I wanted to sit through two more hours, that I wanted to follow those actors, inhabiting those characters, through another 35 years of love and music. That I wanted just one more glimpse like the 10 or 20, when the shadows fell just right and I could half-close my eyes and convince myself that I saw Johnny Cash in Joaquin Phoenix.
Which reminds me that I owe Joaquin Phoenix an apology. You see, until "Walk The Line" I always watched him on-screen with a bit of resentment. After all, it was his brother River who was destined for greatness, a Teen Beat god as well as my generation's great white hope for the survival of the art of acting. I remember where I was and precisely how I felt in that moment when I heard that River Phoenix was gone. And for one of those reasons we all accept but can never quite explain; my heart sank.
So while everyone is talking about the parallels between Johnny and Joaquin both losing favored brothers at a young age, the parallels between Johnny and Ray, I can't help but think that it is the parallels between any one of us and any one of them, for that matter, between you and I, well these are the things — and this is the reason — that the passing of someone we never knew can touch us deeply in ways we can't explain.
*originally published 12.02.2005 – Santa Cruz Sentinel