Early in the new film Walk the Line, opening today, a twelve-year-old Johnny Cash is talking with his adored older brother Jack. Johnny asks how Jack is able to remember all the stories in the Bible. Jack, who wants to be a preacher, responds, “You can’t help people unless you can tell ’em the right stories.”
It’s a truth that the filmmakers clearly bore in mind as they made the movie. Walk the Line, a beautifully made film about Cash’s early years, is many stories in one: a story of sin, self-absorption, recklessness, grace, and redemption.
It’s not a pretty story, by any means. Johnny Cash once told Rolling Stone that he was “the biggest sinner of them all.” He was looking back on years of drug addiction, infidelity, a failed first marriage, and more — sins that are depicted frankly in the movie. As we see him grow more and more successful as a singer and songwriter, we also see his life and marriage begin to fall apart.
Though Johnny Cash kept singing about the Gospel message he had learned as a child, he was no longer living out that message. As he put it in the Rolling Stone interview, “I was separated from God, and I wasn’t even trying to call on Him. I knew that there was no line of communication. . . . I had drifted so far away from God and every stabilizing force in my life that I felt there was no hope.”
Just as he did in real life, Johnny in the movie has to hit bottom before his life begins to turn around, with the help of his future wife June Carter, her family, and their solid Christian faith.
But June had her own demons to battle. A musician and performer since the age of ten, as a young woman June had maturity well beyond her years. She went through two divorces and for years struggled against her attraction to Johnny, who for much of that time was a married man.
As I said, it’s a messy, often painful story.
Johnny and June Carter Cash, however, in their later years were widely known and respected as devout Christians, people of great strength, compassion, and integrity.
I got to know Johnny when he accompanied me to what was then one of the most brutal prisons in America, the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana — an amazing day of singing and preaching. Johnny Cash was the real thing. I can testify it, as could the hundreds of inmates who met Christ that day.
Unfortunately, this film ends before the full story of Cash’s conversion to Christ and the good things he did thereafter could be told. That story would have been a great movie, but maybe that’s too much to expect of Hollywood. Even so, as it is, in spite of portraying drug use and domestic violence, the film is appealing to nonbelievers, because it’s the story of two seekers who, after a great deal of pain, start down the path to true healing. It does allude to God’s plan, but stops there.
We need to be ready to fill in the details about how Cash found his redemption in Christ, the One who truly transforms lives.
Walk the Line, reviewers are saying, has Oscar written all over it, so the crowds will be huge. It’s the kind of story — the right story, as Johnny’s brother, Jack, would say — that will encourage people to examine the direction and meaning of their lives. Just be sure your friends and neighbors who see the movie know the whole story — especially the real-life ending.