December 8, 2008
In a time when the United States is at its most divided, the release of the new documentary Johnny Cash’s America explores the transcendent country singer and his influence on an increasingly alienated nation.
As the voice for the underprivileged and an advocate for the underrepresented, Cash continued to cross boundaries of social status up until his death in 2003. During his lifetime, Cash gained the respect of every sitting President, and he was a frequent visitor at the White House, proving his ability to be a bipartisan champion for people’s rights. His unlikely leadership among the marginalized fringes of society was a testament to his humble, honest spirit and his comprehension of human suffering. Johnny Cash’s America perfectly depicts how the man was far greater than the music he created through its stunning visual images and countless interviews with colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.
With a career spanning six decades, Cash’s music was often at the forefront of the musical landscape, but most importantly, his strength in shedding light on the human condition through his advocacy is nothing short of remarkable. The Cash catalog features any number of country classics, and his deeply dark story songs and grounded baritone were the perfect voice for those whose own voices were rarely heard. Cash remained a steadfast Christian and embraced the religion’s emphasis on humility and devotion to do good unto others. He also developed a strong addiction to painkillers at various points in his life, and the dichotomy here is depicted through tales of his sinful splurges and the dramatic music that resulted.
Cash’s songs were often stark portraits, but the man himself could also be quite compassionate, and the startling musical soundtrack here captures his stagger towards the depths of despair and his subsequent salvation. By showing how Cash humanized the captive criminals, wayward souls and lowly classes he encounters in this biography, the documentary shows at least some similarities between them and the general public.
A few lighter moments add levity to the piece. The film shows the never-before broadcast pilot from the 1965 Johnny Cash Show, a rare glimpse into the real personality of the sometimes-shy entertainer. The outtakes from “Eat The Document” featuring Bob Dylan are true treasures, providing a glimpse of the often-unheralded humorous sides of the two legends. Also, an unseen rehearsal for a Highwaymen recording session plus a rare BBC performance during his American Recordings comeback give the viewer a sense of the sheer totality of Cash’s career.
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon are the filmmakers behind this sprawling showcase of Cash’s talent, and they lend the right blend of historical significance and musical perspective to this piece. Interviews with a number of Nashville’s legendary singers, including Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Vince Gill provides extra weight to the argument that Cash was the preeminent influence on the country genre, but clips with family members such as son John Carter Cash and sister Joanne Cash are the most emotionally charged. The Cash family takes viewers to rural Dyess, Arkansas to Cash’s childhood home. They gather at the grave of Cash’s brother, Jack, who died in an accident at age 15, and sing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
In both country music and American politics, one can’t help but believe that circle is damaged, but perhaps not destroyed. With Cash’s death five years ago, a piece of American history passed right along with him. Johnny Cash’s America delivers on its promise to tie the legend with his legacy in our society, beyond the confines of country music, and also provides a sense of hope that the circle will once again be repaired link by link.