In only the best senses of the comparison, documentarian Thom Zimny is becoming the Ken Burns of American roots music. Having made a series of laser-focused films on Bruce Springsteen and a revelatory two-part doc on Elvis Presley (The Searcher, which played last year’s SXSW), the director offers another portrait that rises above fannishness while fully acknowledging its subject’s legacy. In The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, he scrapes away a lifetime’s worth of crud — the overfamiliarity, reputational cliche and greatest-hits shallowness that attaches to all great artists — to get closer to the essence of the man. Less a work of musicology than a spiritual portrait, it may generate slightly less awe than The Searcher did; but it does right by Cash, and furthers the impression that Zimny should be funded to make a dozen such movies, each at whatever length its subject demands. Quickly, please.
Zimny uses much more of the subject’s own voice to tell this tale than he did in The Searcher — thanks to the plentiful interview tapes the singer recorded with Patrick Carr as the two wrote 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography. But as in the Presley film, all interviewees are kept off the screen, to hypnotic effect: Bruce Springsteen, poet Paul Muldoon, Emmylou Harris and others share their insights while we see only film clips and stills from the time, many of them previously unreleased. (Evocative, person-free new footage brings some of the places in Cash’s story to life.)
The film is anchored in the 1968 concert Cash gave for inmates at Folsom Prison — not his first show for prisoners, but the one that helped America understand his affinity for those who’ve lost their freedom. (The concert also features prominently in the fest entry Show Me the Picture, where music photographer Jim Marshall recalls shooting the Folsom event.) Though he recounts Cash’s life more or less chronologically, Zimny returns throughout to images of this jail, adding meaning each time.
Son John Carter and daughter Roseanne help tell the personal side of the story, with the latter giving useful insight into Cash’s famous troubles with drug addiction. The amphetamines and barbiturates he came to rely on were anything but recreational at the start, but were doctor-recommended ways of dealing with the strain of touring. Still, Cash himself recalls that amphetamines “supercharged me” before concerts, and Zimny finds a chilling bit of performance film to illustrate that.
Marshall Grant, the bassist who played with Cash for decades, chalks up the success of their Sun Studios recordings to “our inability“: Lacking in certain musical finesse, they and producer Sam Phillips emphasized a sparse, primitive style. Recalling the sound of those first records, keyboardist Benmont Tench marvels at “the emptiness of it” and says Cash’s voice “was a universe of its own.” (Sadly, Tench’s late bandmate Tom Petty, who lent musical insights to The Searcher, isn’t around to do the same here.) Dwight Yoakam argues that this music was “anything but” simplistic: “It was succinct,” cutting straight to the point. That directness will be evident also in later performance footage: In a TV rendition of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” the addition of background singers and several additional instruments can’t dilute the message.
The film’s title comes from a memory Cash relates of his mother’s advice: Having heard her son’s resonant voice as he sang to himself while working, she told him, “God has his hand on you,” and urged him never to forget “the gift” he was given. Anyone familiar with the songwriter knows religion will be a large part of this story, but The Gift is even more intent on helping us understand the social causes that motivated him. While some found fault in works like Bitter Tears, a full album he devoted to the story of Native Americans, Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks appreciatively of his attempts to shed light on America’s sins.
Before Zimny gets to the revival sparked by Cash’s recordings with Rick Rubin, he pays dutiful attention to artistic and commercial failures, including years in which Cash admits, “I made the terrible, fatal mistake of burlesquing myself.” The film also works to correct the popular notion that Cash’s troubles ended when he left his first, troubled marriage (to the long-suffering Vivian Cash) and married June Carter. The two endured hard times of their own, and Cash was far from done with substance abuse: Footage from a family revival catches him looking frighteningly unhinged.
But faith and family pulled Cash through, and he remained sufficiently connected to “the gift” that he touched a new generation in the last years of his life. “The reaction was like the ’50s all over again,” Rubin says of the five albums he made with Cash. Near its end, the redemptive arc of the singer’s life makes The Gift feel more conventional than the tangled, tragic story told by The Searcher. While that’s no fault of the filmmaker, it does inspire one to wonder what thorny tale of genius and self-sabotage Zimny might choose to follow up this one. Perhaps one of the black artists who so inspired Sun Records’ big white stars?
Production company: Kennedy Marshall
Director: Thom Zimny
Screenwriter: Warren Zanes
Producers: Thom Zimny, Glen Zipper, Sean Stuart, Jillian Apfelbaum
Executive producers: Frank Marshall, Jeff Pollack, John Carter Cash, Dan Friedkin
Directors of photography: Nicola Narsh, Charles Liban
Editor: Chris Iversen
Composer: Mike McCready
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)