There have been any number of movies about Johnny Cash, from documentaries like “My Father and the Man in Black” to glorified concert films like “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” and an Oscar-winning biopic, “Walk the Line,” but none have expressed the singular power of his solemn voice better than “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash.” A womb-to-tomb oral history that was made with the full support and participation of the late singer’s family (and sometimes feels too close to its subject as a result), the film makes sure that nothing supercedes or waters down the humbled, biblical tenor that always made it sound as though Cash was steeling us for the darkness to come.
From Bruce Springsteen and Rick Rubin to several of Johnny Cash’s children, more than a dozen people offer some kind of interview testimony, but — archival photographs notwithstanding — their faces never appear on screen; Cash’s first real contact with the world was through the radio, and Thom Zimny’s doc is hellbent on restoring the primacy of the human voice. Cash’s voice was his gift, and it only grew more valuable as he got older. Now that he’s gone, it’s absolutely priceless. It’s holy. If nothing else, this film will be an undeniable wake-up call to anyone who may not have realized that.
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But as Zimny reaffirms and overlooks in equal measure, Johnny Cash didn’t need any context; like a low roll of thunder at the end of a storm, he answered life’s scariest questions with the kind of authority that didn’t leave room for any follow-ups. As hypnotic as it can be to hear about the ups and downs of Cash’s life from those who knew him well, it can be frustrating when people talk over someone who always said it best in his own words.
On the other hand, who wouldn’t listen to Springsteen wax poetic about a kindred spirit? The Boss relates to Cash as another conduit of American myths — as a man who could only tell great truths because he was personally so full of shit — and Zimny, who directed “Springsteen on Broadway,” wisely front-loads his film with a kernel of insight that carries it all the way home. “The magic was the simplicity of it,” Springsteen intones. “A combination of sin and salvation — Saturday night and Sunday morning.”
Everyone else comes along to fill in the details, but Cash’s story is defined by that struggle to reconcile the highs and lows of all existence. In one of the many autobiographical recordings that are strewn about the doc, Cash remembers that his dad never hit him, but also never told him he loved him. And while everything sounds like a lament when it lurches out of Cash’s throat, you can hear an extra note of sadness in his voice; it’s not that he wanted the violence, but that he got nothing from the numbness.
Cash was a seeker with an inborn need to find and express our common humanity, and he resented anything that interfered with that quest. He lived on a roller-coaster of amphetamines and barbiturates, and — to the chagrin of his family and his first wife — he resented every minute he had to waste away from his mission. The way that Cash admits he “loves the road,” well, that really says it all.
The time “The Gift” spends reiterating that same truth from shallower perspectives somehow feel both necessary and not; Cash’s children speak about their dad’s addiction with remarkable candidness, but they know this is for public consumption, and there’s only so much they want to add to the conversation. We already know that Johnny’s relationship with June Carter wasn’t some kind of fairy tale romance; we know (mostly thanks to “Walk Hard”) that Cash was forever changed by his brother’s death, and exorcised his grief through song for the rest of his life.
Zimny’s film is happy to burnish these narratives, but it doesn’t want (or feel empowered) to complicate the image of a man who had more identities than Bob Dylan. The rambler. The frontiersman. The patriot. The cowboy. “The Gift” mentions them all, but seldom dares to imagine how they spoke to each other. Instead it lets Cash’s voice take us through a stream of memories, and frequently returns to the iconic Folsom Prison show in a fitfully effective attempt to pool them together.
Despite a wealth of archival photographs and performance footage — all extraordinary, but often redundant — the autobiographical elements dilute the more abstract emotions that bubble up around them. In a film that’s full of revelatory asides about the redemptive quality of Cash’s music, or his capacity to represent the underdog made him an unlikely ally to America’s most oppressed people, the basic facts tend to get in the way. There’s a passing mention of Cash’s own inherited racism, but nothing about how he managed to snuff it out. Cash talks about his faith as much as he does about Folsom, but how one may have led to the other is left to our imagination. The pain is clear, but the hurt… well only Cash was able to convey that (with an assist from Trent Reznor).
But picking apart Zimny’s film for what it can’t accomplish shouldn’t minimize what it actually does. Just because Mark Romanek’s music video said it all doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarding to hear it in other words, and in greater detail. And that’s what “The Gift” recognizes so well, and offers to all who see it: Even after a lifetime spent listening to Johnny Cash’s voice, you’d still hear something new.
“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” premiered at SXSW 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.