[5 August 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I walked through the big yard, to feel the warm sunshine.
A 99-year man stepped over to me.
He offered a smoke, and said as I rolled it,
“Tomorrow I’m goin’ to break out and go free.”
—Johnny Cash, “Walls of a Prison”
I sing a lot about life as I knew it.
Johnny Cash squats by a fence, hands cupped to his mouth. He turns, just barely, toward the camera as he begins to caw, a sound that’s somewhere between screeching and retching. He stands and walks away from the camera, in coveralls with a rifle in hand, alone in nature, with camera crew. He shoots, then walks over to retrieve his felled target. The crow tries to bite him when he picks it up. The camera closes on their interaction: “You wanna get me, don’t ya, you son of a gun?” He smiles. “I already like you, for some reason,” he says, beginning to walk with the bird cradled in his arm. “I’m gonna charm you yet.” The bird lays still. And with that, he begins to sing: “If I could fly like Mr. Crow, woman, / I know where I would go, I’d leave you.”
No doubt about it, Johnny Cash is a charmer. That much is clear in this brief early scene in Robert Elfstrom’s remarkable verité portrait, Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music. The filmmaker followed his subject for months in 1968, the year the Man in Black married June Carter and Live at Folsom Prison won Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards. With his life and career in one of their several turnarounds, Cash is here an ideal documentary subject, self-aware, passionate, and glad to take the crew along on a tour of places and people that matter to him, from his childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas to Wounded Knee, where, he says later, he’s inspired to write “Big Foot” by a local medicine man.
Edited for POV by Peter Davis, this 1969 film is lovely and enduring, a series of poetic vignettes. The tone seems to match Cash’s own, reflective and low-key. Asked by an interviewer if he sees a repeated theme in country music, he answers seriously, leaning toward his questioner. “Love is the main theme of all music, of course. There’s much more sadness in country music,” he says, “Maybe because it is from the grass roots and of a simple way of life.”
Respect for such simplicity—a term more in tune with basic values than any sort of easiness—is visible throughout the film. Johnny and June flirt and kiss on their tour bus, then pick fruit in an orchard with their kids, and the camera observes from a medium distance. At times the film is more plainly precise in its storytelling. Following a scene at Cash’s parents’ home, where they sit with his father, Ray, who agrees to sing an old tune from World War I, the scene cuts to a concert stage, where Cash sings “Five Feet High and Rising,” with focus on the lyric, “How high is the water, daddy?” following the performance, fans seek autographs and pose for pictures with their idol. “Johnny Cash just can’t be beat,” says one. “When John sings, he does his stuff.”
He does do that, and Elfstrom’s film is justly famous for its rare footage of Cash in a recording studio with Bob Dylan, working on Bob Dylan “One Too Many Mornings” (including a brief scene where they smile, tentatively, then full-on while listening to the playback), as well as its several complete stage numbers. The camera darts about during these performances, catching glimpses of Cash’s perspiring brow or June’s ever-perfect coif: “This is as sexy as I’m gonna get,” she purrs at a wholly appreciative and respectful audience of prisoners. “We sing the songs mostly of the old Carter family,” she continues, then introduces her mama and her sisters Anita and Helen, all of whom smile sweetly on cue. “So take your hands out of each other’s pockets!” she quips, before she charges into her number. When Cash takes the stage, the camera shows close-ups of prisoners’ faces, rapt. When he tells them the performance is being filmed, he pauses for an instant: “So don’t say shit or anything like that,” she laughs, one of them and glad for it.
Cash makes clear his sense of allegiance to those fans with whom he notoriously identified, the downtrodden, incarcerated, and Native Americans. Though by this time, Cash has learned he isn’t one-quarter Cherokee blood as he had once believed (“I got very little Indian blood in me myself,” he says, “except in my heart”), Cash uses the film to promote the cause of Native American civil and land rights. As a chief walks with Cash and points out the spot at Wounded Knee where his grandmother was killed, the camera shows Cash’s somber face; the soundtrack eases into “Big Foot”: “But death showed no favorites, / Women, men, and children died.”
As much as the film focuses on Cash’s music, it also offers looks into his “world,” which includes his efforts to help up-and-coming singers. Listening to a young man named Dan Freed, he looks honestly move, and the film grants the backstage performance (two songs, including “Bank of Mariposa”) time to sink in. ” would like to get you an audition with Columbia Records, Cash says, as Freed looks stunned. “I think you’ve got it, so I’d be glad to set you up with an audition.” When Cash leaves the room, the camera stays behind for a moment, watching Freed pace and dance a little, alone and thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. When Cash returns, he states simply and profoundly what he sees in Freed: “You can write and you got a sound of your own.” It’s a good place to start describing Cash’s genius as well.