december 2008

Documentary directed by Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon
Running Time: 110 minutes (90 minutes, main program; 20 minutes, bonus material)
CD compilation produced by Gregg Geller

That Johnny Cash was a man of many complexities is borne out by the continuing flow of verbiage, music and video chronicling his life and music. Some of these are what they are—appreciations, retrospectives, chances to marvel anew at the integrity of the Man in Black's oeuvre—a precious few are more than the sum of their parts. Witness Johnny Cash's America, a DVD/CD combo package that does much more than celebrate Cash's life and legacy—it actually deepens our understanding of the Man in Black. The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the creative team responsible for the vital Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story aired on PBS last year, uses much familiar footage but also uncovers some rare and previously unseen video that is less enlightening than it is a sheer pleasure to experience, including Cash and Bob Dylan in outtakes from the Nashville Skyline and other sessions that brim with a feeling of deep personal communication between the two artists (Dylan, who seems perfectly at ease in Cash's presence, confides to the filmmakers that he regarded Cash as "a spiritual figure" and notes as well: "He was the epitome of country music. He was the livin' ultimate end." Despite his unabashed reverence, Dylan shows no uncertainty or hesitation in working with Cash, and that says a lot about Cash's ability to relate to others on purely human terms that put everyone at ease—Dylan may have thought him "the livin' ultimate end," but Cash never bought into such acclaim. Which is not the same as saying he didn't enjoy being Johnny Cash, a point made abundantly evident as this story unfolds.)

Robert Gordon was chronicling Memphis music and musicians a long time before he got into filmmaking, and to this script he brings a literary approach that makes it more than a biography, more than the sum of its parts even. At the same time, it never tries to judge Cash, never resorts to amateur psychology in probing the contradictions in his character, and never tries to make him something he wasn't. The filmmakers' balanced inquiry into Cash's many dimensions brings to mind the words Ted Kennedy spoke of his brother Robert at the latter's funeral: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it." RFK did it in his way as a politician using the apparatus of government; Johnny Cash did it his way as a folk troubadour, using the apparatus of song. Who's to say one was more effective than the other? Moreover, as men of conscience, both RFK and Johnny Cash proved the truth of another of Ted's observations: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." In sending fort those "ripples of hope," Cash was granted considerably more time than was Robert F. Kennedy, and even when he was battling his own demons of addiction, he never lost sight of what one man could do if he raised his voice in defense of the helpless, the imprisoned, the impoverished, the poor, the disenfranchised. Thus the visits to prisons to play music for men who had committed heinous crimes, thus the pilgrimages to Wounded Knee and to Native American reservations, thus the open hand of friendship to war protesters and hawks alike.

Neville and Morgan loosely structure the documentary around several themes: Protest, Justice, Family, Truth, Faith, Redemption, et al. Like the man himself, the themes of Cash's life are alternately concrete (Protest, Family) and abstract (Truth, Faith, Redemption). Cash is seen doing; various friends, family members and associates are heard asserting and theorizing, their observations in the end having the force of truth, of getting us closer to the mystery of what drove Johnny Cash more than anything save the artist's own songs. Always, though, with an writer as eloquent and insightful as Cash, it's easy to say all we need to know about the man is in his songs, but Johnny Cash's America presumes, properly, to say the songs make us want to look deeper for the real man who wrote them, because to undertake such a search is to try to find yourself somewhere along the way in the strivings of another pilgrim.

This is Johnny Cash's America: a place in which the man who could sing "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" could also ask, in abject humility, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" A place where a man could celebrate his fellow citizens' unswerving commitment to and sacrifices for freedom in "Ragged Old Flag" and in the next moment pitilessly scourge their government's intolerance of dissent ("What Is Truth") and corrosive policies at home and abroad ("The Man in Black"). Cash was constantly swinging between the poles of addiction and sobriety, of serving God and Mammon both, of enjoying the accoutrements of celebrity and holding firm to his small town roots, of being an avowed patriot and having to defend those whose patriotism was rooted in civil disobedience rather than blind allegiance.

There is much memorable music in the film and on the accompanying CD, the latter having complete version of the great Cash tunes we hear only in snippets in the documentary. But in the end, what resonates are the words of people who knew Cash well and whose informed perspectives bring cohesion to the narrative conceits binding the story together.

Marshall Grant, Tennessee Two/Three bassist: "He was the type of person that had to have his freedom. He had to do what he wanted to do. He could not be forced into a situation. He couldn't stand closed-in areas."

Steve Earle: "The speed at which he became Johnny Cash, taught himself to be Johnny Cash, is pretty astounding. The level of musicianship that he started out from, and the songwriting, is astounding."

Merle Haggard, on the June Carter-Johnny Cash relationship: "She either clipped his wings or saved his life. Or both."

Rosanne Cash, on her father's spirituality: "I don't believe he thought having faith had anything to do with being good."

Steve Earle: "I think you become a tolerant human being by being too aware of your own shortcomings."

It's all here, vintage footage from the '50s Sun years, from the Folsom Prison shows, ample use of footage culled from the invaluable The Man, His World, His Music documentary filmed in 1969; the Dylan-Cash footage; Cash rehearsing with his fellow Highwaymen; interviews with (in addition to those cited above) daughter Cindy Cash, Kris Kristofferson, a regrettably topless Cowboy Jack Clement (who's in a swimming pool the whole time), Sheryl Crow, and son John Carter Cash, who speaks movingly about his father's addiction, with equal frankness and hurt as he had described in his 2007 book, Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash. Plus a stunning ending centered on the powerful video shot near the end of Cash's life for the song "Hurt," which is intercut with images of the artist from the cradle nearly to the grave, images brimming with life, intense feeling, joy, celebration, contemplation, triumph and sadness-a life lived full measure.

Finally, Cash's own words, uttered in voiceover, linger in memory, more than those of any of the other erudite authorities who have tried to help the viewer get a handle on the enigma of Johnny Cash. Maybe, in the end, after all, he did distill, in his own words, the essence of his humanity into a succinct, penetrating, illuminating credo. To wit: "What is man if he doesn't have a spirit? And what is man's spirit if he cannot connect with the master of life? That is the big question, I guess; the big thing that I would like to work on more."

Always working on a building. Always working on a building.

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