Johnny Cash’s mother called his cool baritone voice “a gift,” one he thankfully bestowed onto listeners for nearly half a century. It was gold when he was around, prized as he grew older, and priceless now that he’s gone. If the title wasn’t any indication, Thom Zimny’s latest musician-based documentary, The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, celebrates his immortal gift. But the film transcends the rudimentary responsibilities of the biography as it uses Cash’s story to exemplify the power our voices grant us, especially when we trust them.
Several family members, producers, and friends speak about Cash and his time at the top, bottom, and eventual return to the top of the music industry; The Gift, unlike the famed biopic about Cash, Walk the Line, is a start-to-finish chronicle of the musician’s life. What’s unique is that other than the occasional archival photograph, their faces never appear on the screen; to hypnotic effect, the likes of Bruce Springsteen, poet Paul Muldoon, and even actor Robert Duvall are reduced to nothing but a sound.
Zimny gives his subject the same treatment. Relying on the audio tapes Cash prepared with Patrick Carr for his 1997 autobiography, the director compiles a series of publicity photos, concert recordings, and even breaks into the vault of Cash’s home videos to provide a fresh perspective of this story, the majority of which Cash is thankfully allowed to tell himself.
Anchored to his famous performance at Folsom Prison in 1968, the film is mostly chronological, starting with Cash’s homely childhood in the Arkansas farmlands and ending with the public and personal rehabilitation he conceived with the Rick Rubin recordings. But Zimny – and a tour bus that journeys across backroads makes up the majority of the modern additions to the film – continuously returns to the prison. Be it to amplify the affinity the musician had for those serving hard time, or to parallel the legal and familial hardships he faced, it always serves a different purpose.
The timing of Cash’s recordings is crucial to the candid tone of the film, which, like Zimny’s HBO Elvis project, The Searcher (which premiered at SXSW last year), doesn’t hold back on the singer’s tumultuous periods, digging more into the essence of the man, rather than crafting a musicology tribute. It’s the late 90s and he’s declining in health; his resolve is reflective. He, along with several of his kids, speaks about his spells with drug addiction, 23-hour days with no sleep and no meaning.
However, during this time, Cash was still able to produce great music (Zimny provides us with plenty to consume). The moments dedicated to explaining the methodical nature of Cash’s creative process, where substance took precedence over intricate riffs and chords – though a lack of musicianship may have been an additional cause – are some of the best of the film. He’s compared to a poet at one point, stuck trying to condense everything around him into a string of words. But speaking as a fan, and as one who knows his fiery advocacy and support for things such as prison reform and the desegregation of Native Americans, there have been few better at consolidating and translating their beliefs than Cash.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash points out that despite the political currents or any smear potentially facing his reputation, Cash never withheld himself from expression. That fact carries this film and its subject into the social conscience, making Cash’s a story that champions embracing core beliefs and one that deserves to be told.
Thom Zimny’s chronicle of the Man in Black works as a revealing and compelling life story, but more importantly as a testament to the power and longevity of standing by your voice.