Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, which will be airing Tuesday, August 5, on PBS, is a rare treasure, an intimate portrait of one of America’s most important musicians as he travels, tours, records, and converses. The film is a compilation of footage captured by cinematographer Robert Elfstrom in 1968, just a few years after Cash had recovered from years of alcohol and drug use and soon after Cash’s marriage to June Carter. Elfstrom followed Cash as he performed concerts at prisons and Indian reservations, as he revisited his hometown of Kingsland, Arkansas, and as he recorded songs with a young Bob Dylan. By depicting Cash in these everyday moments, we begin to see the sources for his music, how many of his songs grew organically out of his experiences working the land. Elfstrom’s film is a surprisingly intimate portrait of Cash, one that provides a valuable glimpse of one brief moment in his illustrious career.

I should probably admit that I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan. I have incredibly fond memories of listening to Cash’s American Recordings collaborations with Rick Rubin while I was finishing my dissertation, but I’m also fond of the music he was doing in the late 1960s, when he was experiencing a revival of sorts (punctuated by a scene in which he wins a Country Music Association award for best album). Like most rockumentaries, Johnny Cash is structured around stage performances. We see Cash perform classics such as “Folosm Prison Blues” in front of an audience in a prison. He sings “Ballad of Ira Hayes” to an audience of Native Americans, a scene that segues nicely into a scene where Cash visits the site where the Battle of Wounded Knee took place. As usual, these performances are incredibly infectious. Every time I watch Cash and Carter perform “Jackson,” I’m always struck by how much the couple seems to be enjoying themselves. It’s an incredibly fun song, and in every recording I’ve seen, they always make it seem fresh and alive.

But while these performances are amazing, some of the scenes that I found most compelling were those where Cash observes or listens to others, particularly other musicians.  It’s difficult not to appreciate Cash’s generosity, his willingness to support a younger generation of talented musicians.  Because Johnny Cash is an observational documentary, it might frustrate viewers who are looking for a more coherent narrative, but I think Cash fans will enjoy seeing him in these somewhat more unguarded, everyday moments.

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