We all remember Walk The Line as the movie that won Reese Witherspoon an Oscar and launched the epic rap career of Joaquin Phoenix. What many don’t know is that the film, which chronicles the life of Johnny Cash all the way up to his proposal to June Carter in 1968, isn’t even half of the story of why Johnny and June Carter are the most celebrated couple in Country Music.
Rumors of a follow up have come up every now and again with not much substance behind it. This isn’t completely disheartening as Phoenix and Witherspoon would need to age about twenty years to convincingly reprise the roles in a true sequel. But after so much time, is a sequel really a good idea? After all, if the first story was great why risk tarnishing it on a follow up film that no one really wants? Should anyone be excited for a film like this?
Here are five reasons why the answer is yes:
Most likely the film will pick up about thirteen years after Cash’s proposal with a montage filling in the gaps. The 70’s were mostly happy, low-key years in Cash’s life as the singer recorded Gospel, hosted a TV show, and made a few acting appearances on dramas like Columbo and Little House on the Prairie. These are interesting times, but not exactly a film worthy opening. What would be a film worthy opening is if Johnny Cash fell victim to… oh let’s just say…
1- An Ostrich Attack
Johnny Cash had kept a few ostriches in a park near his house in Old Hickory Lake. One day a particularly aggressive ostrich turned a bit too violent and stood hissing in front of Johnny while blocking the trail by the park. Never one to back down from a fight, even if it was from an ostrich, Johnny Cash took a giant stick and swung at the giant bird only to miss by a fair margin.
As Cash writes in his 1997 autobiography, the bird’s idea of a counter attack “was break my two lower ribs and rip my stomach open down to my belt, If the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid belt buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to. As it was, he knocked me over onto my back and I broke three more ribs on a rock.” Were it not for Johnny Cash’s choice of belt that day we would be robbed of all that would follow.
Why does such a completely ridiculous fight between a Country legend and an ostrich matter so much? Because the fight furthered Cash’s growing relapse into pills and pain medication. Despite what a few moments in Walk the Line may hint at, Cash was never off the stuff for good until the mid 80’s. His career had hit a significant stall whack furthered his growing frustration with Columbia Records. The company had spent much of Cash’s career taking his music in the opposite direction he wanted. This involved adding more unwanted instruments to liven up his low, stoic voice. In reality, Columbia knew that their once great icon had run out of steam and were trying everything to squeeze whatever magic was left.
So now Cash was fully back on drugs and angered at how his music turned out. This dangerous mix of pain killers and frustration led Johnny Cash to purposefully release…
2- The Worst and Weirdest Johnny Cash Song of All Time
In 1984 Johnny Cash had become so fed up with his recording label that he decided to take a page out of Mel Brooks’ playbook and purposefully write a song so intentionally awful that the studio would have no choice but to fire him. How awful was it? The title was “Chicken in Black.”
The song, told from Johnny Cash’s perspective, starts with him having so bad of a headache that he asks his doctor for some treatment. The doctor decides the best course of action is to put the brain of a bank robber in Johnny Cash’s head. Cash then returns to performing and things work alright. That is, Cash is suddenly compelled to rob random people he encounters, from people he meets at a bank to the entire audience at his concerts. Understanding the brain is the problem, Cash asks the doctor for his old brain back but unfortunately the doctor has placed Cash’s brain into a chicken. Said chicken has since grown into a hit singer that performs all of Cash’s songs. The only thing more ridiculous than this song is the music video, which can be seen right here.
Full disclosure: I love this song, and I am not the only because it soon became a commercial hit despite the studio and critics tearing it apart. Nevertheless, it did achieve the main result of Cash being let go from Columbia records. While he got what he wanted, Cash now faced the ordeal of not having a label to promote his music and being too old and too much of a security risk for another major label to take on. This sank him deeper into depression and drugs until he was forced to check himself into the Betty Ford clinic. It was there he would get clean and begin a very unlikely friendship with…
3- Ozzy Osborne
One of the highlights of Walk the Line were the appearances of other huge rock stars like Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. It added to the importance of Cash to see him walk shoulder to shoulder with so many musical titans while also providing variety from other genres of music.
I want you to picture this scene of the film: A groggy, strung out Johnny Cash is brought into the Betty Ford Clinic. He slumps over in a chair in the common room, burying his head in his hands. He contemplates the last few years where he has been kicked off of his record label after releasing hands down the worst song of his career. He’s the laughing stock of country music and now no one respects him, not even his ostriches. All of a sudden a loud, incoherent “Oy!” is heard from his left. The camera pans over to reveal an equally strung out Ozzie Osborne sitting right next to him. Ozzie coughs loudly a few times and in his iconic what-the-hell-did-he-just-say voice asks, “Aren’t you that Chicken guy?”
And through this the first interaction of one of the most unconventional friendships is told. Ozzy’s presence, which Cash speaks of affectionately in his autobiography, would add some some much needed comic relief to Cash’s descent while highlighting the consistent drug problems that are found in musicians. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a British heavy metal head-banger or a Stylin’ Southerner, everyone has their vulnerabilities.
More importantly, the friendship with Osborne during one of the more vulnerable moments in Cash’s career led to the understanding of how to give his music a fresh angle. Whereas the withdrawal scene in Walk the Line gave Cash a new lease on life, the sequel’s Betty Ford clinic scene would provide him with the insight and drive to never give upon music as long as he had something to say. This would transition quite naturally a few years later to the event that would redeem Cash in the eyes of the music community and forever establish him as a legend…
4- The American Recordings
In 1994, Rick Rubin paid Johnny Cash a visit. Rubin was a music producer better known at the time for his work with Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and LL Cool J. He had heard rumors of bold music that Cash was working on and wanted to release them under his newly named record label American Recordings. As an added bonus, Rubin would let Cash perform his songs in the stripped-down musical style aided only with his guitar (It was this very demand that had influenced Columbia to jettison Cash ten years before).
This is where the inspirational highlights of the film would take place with many flashbacks to Walk the Line being utilized as Cash records personal songs in his living room. Cash would explore his past failures through song as well as come to terms with his deteriorating family life (I’ll get to that soon).
For those who don’t know, the vast majority of the American Recordings (6 total albums with 2 of them released posthumously) are covers of famous songs, including arguably the greatest of all time. Also part of the lineup are original songs such as “Drive On”, “Redemption”, and the incredible “The Man Comes Around.” Johnny would spend the rest of his life recording these songs and when he died he would once again be at the top of his game despite having endured so much.
Around the same time Johnny was working on American Recordings, June Carter released her own Grammy Award winning album Press On (produced by son John Carter Cash). While every track on the album is a jewel, today’s listeners may get a special kick out of her cover of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, aka that awesome Bioshock: Infinite end credits song.
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned June until now. There are two reasons: Press On was her first musical release since 1975’s Appalachian Pride, discounting a few albums released with Johnny in the late 70’s. This meant that much of her story in this was dealing with the crazy things Johnny was doing to himself and trying to keep the family together throughout all of it. The other reason is that her story warranted an entire section to her because…
5- Johnny and June’s Love was Still Passionate Throughout All of This, but Very Troubled As Well
John Carter Cash recently released a book that revealed some disturbing details about his parents. While still a far cry away from the levels of abuse of Ike and Tina Turner or Sid and Nancy (The book insists there was never any physical abuse between the two), Johnny and June definitely didn’t experience what one would call a “fairy tale ending” after the events of Walk the Line. There were long fights, accusations of infidelity and, most tragically, the addiction of June to narcotics in the 90’s. That’s right. After decades of fighting off his pill addiction, Johnny Cash would witness a drug addiction take over his wife who had helped him beat it.
This isn’t to say the two weren’t romantic and loved each other passionately; just that the struggle and pain was just as rough if not rougher than the period depicted in Walk the Line. Their’s was a passionate love that they had to continuously fight for (and boy, did they fight). Even John Carter, who suffered a lot in those years believes his parents had “long-lasting love, even though it may be through long suffering.”
So now that all the pieces are together, one can see a film here: Imagine having to witness Johnny Cash and June Carter have a huge fight over Johnny getting caught being on drugs again. This leads angry Johnny to storm off outside where he provokes a near fatal ostrich attack, which causes Johnny’s relapse into painkillers, which motivates the release of a song about a chicken who robs banks, which prompts the unceremonious dismissal from his label of over 30 years, which sinks Johnny into so deep a drug haze that he joined the Betty Ford Clinic, where he made friendships with other drug addicted rock stars, which inspires him to release bold albums while June Carter collapses into addiction, which both do their best to work through, resulting in the creation of some of the best music ever produced. And yet, after that exhausting journey where so much pain has been inflicted the audience is somehow still certain in their hearts that these two people were meant to be together forever. That sounds like one hell of a film.
In the event that this becomes a movie I don’t wish to spoil much more of the incredibly romantic and traumatic moments this couple experienced in over thirty years of marriage (I’ve done enough of that already). I’ll simply provide you with my personal favorite entry from their golden years. In a duet version of “Far Side Banks of Jordan”, the couple sings about the inevitable fate that each will die, leaving the other alone in life. On one verse of the song June Carter sings to Johnny:
If It Proves To Be His Will That I Am First To Cross
And Somehow I’ve A Feeling It Will Be
When It Comes Your Turn To Travel Likewise Don’t Feel Lost
For I Will Be The First One That You’ll See
June Carter would die first. If you need anymore proof that this would be one of the greatest and most heartbreaking stories ever, I leave you with this: A note Johnny Cash couldn’t help but write down not long after his wife passed.
Johnny would travel likewise a few months later.