Another Johnny Cash movie? Hasn’t he been done enough? This had better be good. These were my first thoughts when I saw the programme for the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival. But then I was given the opportunity to interview the Director, Thom Zimny, and my cursory research told me he had been responsible for the Elvis biopic The Searcher, as well as the recent film of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, Springsteen on Broadway. Both films made compelling viewing, so I was in!
I used to hate Johnny Cash when I was a teenager. A Boy Named Sue was just way too corny and country for a young man thirsting for rock. But I did watch the Johnny Cash Show on TV way back in 69/70, just waiting for his guests, who were always interesting and eclectic before I knew the meaning of the word, let alone how to spell it. And any music on TV in those days in rural Southland was a must watch! So my interest was piqued in the mid-90s with the release of his second album with Rick Rubin, which blew me away, and off I went on a mini-retrospective ( he made over 80 albums) picking up the prison albums and his duets with June Carter. I made up with Johnny Cash.
The Walk the Line movie in 2005 with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon was brilliant and visiting Sun Studios in Memphis and seeing the iconic photo of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash also cemented his resurrection. If I can resurrect Elvis, I have to do Johnny, right?
But it turns out that I didn’t know shit until I saw Thom Zimny’s The Gift. Twice.
At the risk of a few spoilers, let me share some of what I didn’t know. After all, the film isn’t showing again at the Festival, which is almost over. But it will appear on an as yet unnamed streaming service in the next few months, so this commentary is an effort to encourage you to wait and look out for it eagerly.
And you can listen to my conversation with Thom Zimny, whose passion for his work is evident, not just in his own words and his movies, but also the devotion he has for his subjects’ music, listened to completely, over and over. For Thom, there is no story bigger than the music.
Interview spoiler: Quote from Thom Zimny: “Johnny Cash made Keith Moon look like a choirboy”
The Gift, as a title for The Journey of Johnny Cash, comes from a comment Johnny’s mother made when his voice broke. Imagine that, all of a sudden, a new voice resonates like thunder. To her, it was a gift from above.
This is the story of Johnny Cash, told by his mainly younger peers, but most of all told by the Man in Black himself, made possible by a serendipitous discovery of actual archive of Johnny Cash doing his own autobiographical commentary with one of his biographers, and recorded on cassette. A discovery made just at the time Thom was despairing at the lack of his voice. It caused him to throw away all the work he’d done and start again. Might just make you believe…..
There’s a risk, of course, in using archival voice in retrospective mode. The person concerned may be trying to recreate history, set the record straight from a selfish perspective, glossing over faults or romanticising them. Earlier in the week, I saw Leonard Cohen turning his 1970’s sex addiction and no doubt predatory behaviour into poetry. This is not the case with Johnny Cash. He is genuine... or does a helluva good job if he’s not. It’s warts and all, especially in terms of his marriage to Vivian, who doesn’t get a lot of coverage in previous biopics.
This is a film not just of Johnny Cash’s voice, but numerous other luminaries from a list too long to mention. Except for John Carter Cash and Roseanne. Children of different mothers. Their voices, but not their heads.
Thom Zimny came to the notion that talking without heads was, firstly, closer to what you get on the radio, but, more importantly, gives the Director creative opportunity to use related images from what is essentially an archival film; images which complement the opinions and commentaries covered by the voices and add an authenticity far greater than staring at an old face reminiscing. And, importantly, it maintains sonic continuity without the interruption of someone else’s image.
And the non-musical scenes are not all archive. For example, the touring bus has been reconstructed and shot as new film, but the archive adds stills to the mix which provide new and imagined context to what it was like in those days of unremitting speed.
We all know the story of Johnny’s addiction to uppers and downers. It was a common feature of life on the road. The same for Elvis. Started in the army. But what we maybe don’t know is the context of a post-World War II America learning to live life based on how you feel and to assist in daily living, a freedom not experienced before, by so many, with such pharmacological indulgence. Have a few of these, says the kindly doctor, they’ll help you live a life of constant travel and performance. 23 hours a day.
Thom’s archival footage of a performing Johnny Cash during the 60’s shows a progressively troubled and gaunt face with shifty eyes and you know what is going on without needing to be told. All the more with the contrast to him singing a year or so after he goes cold turkey, looking healthier and fuller in the face (not, I would emphasise, puffed up like Elvis). And this is the time, in 1968, when he goes to Folsom prison, something he’d wanted to do ever since seeing a film about Folsom in Germany during his stint in the army, where he felt kindred with the prisoners and locked up in his own prison of restricted army life.
Thom Zimny’s story of Johnny Cash starts with Folsom Prison and comes back to that seminal event several times during the film, almost as a metaphor of the artist’s life. At the moment of his first redemption, going clean, going public with his relationship with June, getting married, not long after his first marriage is dissolved after years of troubled times. And giving back, to those incarcerated for, yes, very real crimes, but not offered the same opportunity for redemption. And I didn’t know the full story about Glenn Sherley, the inmate whose song he sings during the Folsom Prison concert. I won’t spoil that one for you.
The 70’s are redemptive years, no major commercial success, but a happy marriage and three more children. But before I go on in the chronology, let’s shift back to the years of addiction and reflect on what I didn’t know about his music during those frantic, speedy times. I didn’t know that Johnny Cash did concept albums, wrote music about topics which the American public and its record companies didn’t want to talk about, such as the plight of the Native American Indians. Radio stations refused to play him. He got angrier and angrier, fuelled by his doctor. And I thought about Woody Guthrie, and all of a sudden, I can put Johnny Cash into a similar light, a wandering poet embracing the personas and causes of America’s West. With an emphasis on similar, not same.
And add this knowledge to the Johnny Cash of the 1969/70s television show, with his eclectic choice of supporting artists, covering the folk, soul and rock genres, all from a studio in the most country of all environments, Nashville recently desegregated through the efforts of the African American children.
Johnny Cash the protester, the activist, the freedom fighter comes even more poignantly into view. Embracing Charley Pride on television, being warned by the Klan.
No wonder he and Bob Dylan were kindred spirits, even though, for the most part, in clandestine fashion. Inviting Dylan to come to Nashville to play with the Nashville Cats wasn’t a whim or a gamble on his part; it was the most natural thing to do.
If you want to see more of the Johnny Cash who I invoke here, go to Netflix and watch Tricky Dicky meets the Man in Black. Great television.
In the ’80s Johnny Cash slips back into addiction, pain killers and sleeping tablets, and his by now fully reconciled families work together to save him once again.
And along comes Rick Rubin... the rest is history. You know most of this, but the film tells it beautifully.
As I reflect on this film, I am driven to articulate what I have often felt about America and Americans. There seems to be a sparseness of moderation in the American psyche. It’s all or nothing. It’s sin and repentance, an extreme pendulum curve in the pursuit of the American Dream. All or nothing. Saturday night and Sunday morning. Presence of and abandonment by a guiding force. It’s the law of the jungle, and no more so than in the lives of America’s great artists. Underpinned by family, the only tolerable form of socialism, it would seem.
I also reflect on the Johnny Cash hero’s journey, not unlike that of Elvis. Distant if not abusive fathers, strong maternal ties, the loss of a sibling, addiction, guidance (though not, in Elvis’ case an always benevolent guide). Transformation, or return, and in Johnny Cash’s case two times redemption. The tragedy of Elvis is that he didn’t get redemption.
Although Thom begs to differ on this point, and I happily defer to him. Thom sees Elvis’ redemption in the music, in the ‘68 Special, in the enthusiastic looking forward to getting back on the road, a psychological if not physical redemption.
And, on that happier note, I finished my interview, and I can finish this review.
This is a great, great film.
And not a Boy Named Sue insight. There is, however, a song about livestock!
I rest my Cash.