JOHNNY CASH’S AMERICA (2008)
Featuring Johnny Cash (archival footage), June Carter Cash (archival footage), Rosanne Cash, Cindy Cash, John Carter Cash, Joanne Cash, Rick Rubin, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Al Gore, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Vince Gill, Ozzy Osborne, Rep. Lamar Alexander and Tim Robbins.
Narrated by Chris Cooper.
Written by Morgan Neville.
Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.
Distributed by A&E Indie Films. 90 minutes. Not Rated.
Musicians don’t come more iconic and complicated than the late Man in Black. As good friend Kris Kristofferson once pointed out, he was “a walking contradiction – partly truth and partly fiction.”
Johnny Cash was a righteous man and a flawed sinner, a patriot and a rebel, a loving family man who was often not there for his family, an addict and sober as a judge, a jailbird who never really did any serious time, far right wing at the same time as he was far left, a country icon who became an alternative rock figurehead.
He was also a man who lived much of his life in front of the camera. His life has also been fodder to quite a few movies – from the respected bio-pic Walk the Line in 2005 to literally dozens of documentaries (many of them made for television) filmed before and after his death in 2003.
Johnny Cash’s America is better than most. One huge reason is that his family was intimately involved. His sister Joanne and children Rosanne, Cindy and John Carter Cash are all interviewed extensively.
This adds a sense of immediacy, but it also occasionally makes things feel a little staged and overly reverent – particularly in an early section where several family members visit Cash’s grave with a camera crew and “spontaneously” break into a righteous verse of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – the signature song of Cash’s early heroes (and later in-laws) The Carter Family Singers. (Luckily, daughter Rosanne Cash – who is an extraordinary singer/songwriter in her own right and offers probably the most thoughtful insights of the family members – did not take part in this little stunt.)
The Cash family’s involvement also assures that we get to see some rare and fascinating archival footage and gives the filmmakers free reign of the singer’s legendary musical catalogue.
Johnny Cash’s America shares a similar name with his later American Recordings comeback disks – as well as the exact same name as a mostly forgotten 70s album. It also borrows basic format of the 2000 career-spanning box set Love, God, Murder in which the narrative is broken up into specific themes like land, freedom, protest, justice, family, truth, faith, patriotism and redemption.
Johnny Cash’s America follows the Man in Black’s hard path by doing a series of interviews with friends, family, bandmates, fans and also using some old sound bites from the late singer himself.
Some of the interviewees seem a little bit offbeat (Snoop Dogg? Ozzy Osbourne?), but their inclusion is just further proof of the broad musical tastes of Cash as a man and the huge, widespread influence he has had way outside the traditional Nashville music scene. Johnny Cash was never beholden to genres in music. There was just music, so it only makes sense that a documentary on the man would share that sensibility.
There were also a few seemingly obvious people who were not interviewed – particularly good friend Willie Nelson, actor Joaquin Phoenix (who played Cash in Walk the Line), rock fans like Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young or Trent Reznor, country protégées like Marty Stuart and Cash’s former son-in-law Rodney Crowell. There is also a fascinating clip with Johnny and Stevie Wonder jamming together on Cash’s old TV series which practically screamed out for a quick quote from Wonder – a testimonial which sadly never came.
At this point, I don’t think that there is much of anyone who is completely uninformed of Cash’s music and life story. However, Johnny Cash’s America walks the well-worn road with simple elegance, passion and beauty – just like artist that inspired the film undoubtedly would have done.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 18, 2008.