Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music
Let’s face it, video killed the rockumentary. In a time when seeing music has pretty much eclipsed merely hearing music, the mystery and value has been drained out of the music documentary. Too many modern record releases are accompanied by electronic press kits littered with behind-the-scenes B-reel footage and talking head interviews, while conceptual videos long ago eclipsed the simple pleasure of watching well-directed performance footage.
Think of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan docs Don’t Look Back and the still-unreleased Eat The Document, or Robert Frank’s scorching and still too-hot-for-mass-consumption tour film Cocksucker Blues, or The Beatles’ Let It Be, or Martin Scorsese’s farewell to The Band, The Last Waltz. There was a time when some musicians recognized the value in allowing a filmmaker into their inner circle, to shoot fly-on-the-wall footage and artfully assemble it into a cinema verite statement unto itself, without the objective of hyping a career.
There’s precious little information available about Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music, filmmaker Robert Elfstrom’s circa-1968 peek into the life of The Man In Black, but somehow, through the strange nature of copyright law, the documentary has been rediscovered and a scratchy, well-worn print of the film has been pressed onto DVD by U.K.-based Cherry Red Films. Elfstrom went on to collaborate again with Cash on a 1973 docudrama called The Gospel Road, but viewing The Man, His World, His Music more than 30 years after the fact, it’s no surprise Elfstrom isn’t mentioned alongside Pennebaker or Scorsese. The film is a confusingly edited combination of interviews, tour bus and backstage actuality, and shaky concert footage.
That said, Elfstrom had access to Cash at the climax of his post-Folsom fame, and there are moments in this film that are a revelation. The performance footage, though poorly lit and sluggishly edited, catches Cash and his ensemble onstage at an outdoor concert and at an unidentified prison, rollicking through “Ring Of Fire”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Five Feet High And Rising”, “Big River” and “Jackson”, as well as the Carter Family harmonizing on “Last Thing On My Mind” and sideman Carl Perkins’ taking center stage for a spirited “Blue Suede Shoes”.
There’s a memorable sequence following Cash to the second annual Country Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium (where At Folsom Prison beat Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Tammy Wynette for best record). Backstage, a teenage singer buttonholes Cash to pitch his songs. In a marvelous scene, an impressed Cash instantly sets up a Columbia Records audition for the deliriously happy rookie.
Elfstrom’s camera travels to Cash’s farm, where the singer warns daughter Rosanne to stay back from a mule while he taunts the beast with a stick, trades songs and stories with family members, and works on some new material. Cash’s tour Winnebago also visits Wounded Knee and his hometown of Dyess, Arkansas, and Elfstrom’s camera witnesses reunions with old family friends who greet Cash with all the wonder of someone who’s just back from another planet. There’s a moving return to the Cash family’s derelict, humble homestead, too.
The portion that will raise the most eyebrows is a studio sequence showing Cash and Bob Dylan in the studio recording “One Too Many Mornings” and clowning around during playback. Who knew film footage existed of that storied collaboration?
My favorite offstage moment comes when Cash, walking in the woods, discovers a wounded crow and begins singing to soothe the terrified bird. What’s missing from this film are more of such raw sequences that carry the impact and authority and poetry of narrative fiction film, but fashioned from real life. But those shortcomings likely won’t deter Cash fans from appreciating the bountiful source of insight into a musical legend at the height of his fame.