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Walk the Line

Most of us don’t see a line until we’re buried under it.
The new biopic Walk the Line documents the life of musical legend Johnny Cash. Essentially a story of salvation and the power of love, it is also a survivor’s manual for would-be rock-and-roll gods, and it’s difficult not to think of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s tumultuous marriage and how the line rolled right over the spokesperson for Generation X.
When people of my generation were cynical about music, we still accepted Johnny Cash’s authenticity. The man in black had burrowed into himself and come back with dark diamonds, valuable because of their flaws rather than despite them. Bands such as the Meat Puppets covered “Ring of Fire” not only because it was a kick-ass song, but because it seemed to cut into the raw nerve of rock and roll to show the twitching live spirit within. 
Sneering his way through songs about salvation and love, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is a contradiction in terms. Battling his demons on the stage as well as off of it, he helped create the clichés we live and die by today.
Growing up poor white trash on a cotton farm in the middle of nowhere USA in the 1940s and ’50s, Cash marries too young and seems torn by the decision. Seeking creative freedom beyond what he can truly imagine, the twenty-something Cash is that type of fifties organized man we’re all familiar with, dividing his time between an ever-expanding family and parental responsibilities and a desire to break free to who knows what?
Life is a prison for Cash and he’s chained to his domesticating wife Vivian through his children, forced to go door-to-door to try to sell appliances while nurturing dreams of fame in secret. Cash is an utter failure as a working stiff and sees any possibility of escape evaporate when his father-in-law’s offer of a job begins to look like his last best option. In desperation he pushes his way into a recording studio where he and two mechanic / musician friends try to woo a record executive with gospels songs.
The executive listens without much patience, then tells the band he’s not interested in cookie-cutter gospel, that the times they are a changing, and what sells now is rock and roll, music that’s raw and honest. Cash makes the decision on the spot to play “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song written while he was in the Army serving overseas that serves as much as a metaphor for the frustrations of organized man as a story of prison blues. 
From there it’s a swift kick up the charts, where Cash shares the spotlight with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and – of course – June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Cash is unexpectedly torn between life with true rebels (madmen like Presley, who introduces him to a colorful array of prescription pills on the other side of the line), authentic love with fellow musician June, and his societal obligations to his family.
Trying to assimilate all these elements leaves him feeling fragmented and broken. On the stage he and June flirt and Cash is able to channel some inner spirit of rebellion, but off stage his marriage falls apart and his drug-fueled mania ultimately leads to depression and addiction. When the dust finally settles the only thing he can still count on is his love for June and the music, but she refuses to be drawn into a man so unstable. 
Cash the star, in some sense, a counterfeit Cash, something constructed in pop culture’s imagination, and celebrity feeds this beast inside him. Like Cobain, the battle for authenticity is as much a war against fan worship and media saturation as a battle to rediscover the potential of music. For Cobain, as for Cash, the real search is for is way to speak that closes the gap between what is true and what is said.   
What saves Cash, according to the film, is a combination of love, nerve and luck. Stumbling across the house of his dreams after a night of heavy drug use, Cash seems to understand that his chances are dwindling. It’s only by accepting June’s friendship – which she offers unconditionally, challenging him to get beyond his demons – that Cash is able to walk a thin and narrow line to sobriety, stability and salvation.   
Walk the Line only provides us with a small glimpse of Cash’s life, but uncanny and excellent acting allows viewers to get lost in what might be one of the sweetest American love stories. Perhaps the reason the man in black is so appealing to younger generations is that he symbolizes how the lost and disaffected can find salvation through authenticity.
Cash tamed the beast inside him by revealing it to us as what it was on the stage, right before us. His swan dive was a public performance – as was Elvis’ and Jim Morrison’s and Cobain’s – but somehow he found something pure in the wreckage of his life, and rose where the others fell.
On the other side of self-destruction he became a true legend; a man who didn’t flinch.

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