Johnny Cash didn’t sound like anyone else in music. His battered baritone and rhythmic guitar strum mixed Nashville country with the honesty of folk rock that rolled. Cash started in the same studio, Sun, as Elvis Presley, and was part of a magical session with him, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Thom Zimny’s documentary The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash fills in the reality behind the myth. And it does it with an authentic voice. Cash narrates his own oral history through footage from interviews which were never released.
Thom Zimny, who spoke with Den of Geek at SXSW 2019, says when he was approached to do the film he was already a huge fan: “I knew the narrative had been explored in books and feature films. I also knew there was a lot of catalog and songwriting that I connected to. There was a film I could find that hadn’t been explored. If I could get access to an archive.”
The director, who made Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, and Elvis Presley: The Searcher, got more than an archive. “I came across 60 hours of unreleased Johnny Cash, discussing his life with an author in preparation for a book.”
“This was the goldmine, because it allowed Johnny Cash to deliver his story. After finding more exclusive audio, he recut the whole movie because Cash was “there in the room.” Hearing Cash’s “musical voice” tell his own story gave the documentary a “mythic quality.” But Zimney was able to get behind the accepted narrative to “really take on those myths head on, without being salacious,” he says.
“You look for the details that are lost,” he says, like he did in his Elvis documentary film. “The storylines that get buried. A lot of times it deals with race, a lot of times it’s about the artistic struggle.”
Zimney says he was struck by Cash’s “honesty about his own weaknesses.” Cash’s work is appreciated by fans of all genres. He explored country, rock and R&B, from the early sessions to the Rick Ruben. Cash “explored he light and he dark consistently, and that makes sense today,” Zimney says.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash was made with the full support and participation of the Cash estate. The documentary also features the voices of Rubin, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Brown, Graham Nash, as well as Cash’s children and other collaborators. The film explores the “artistic victories, the personal tragedies, the struggles with addiction, and the spiritual pursuits that colored Johnny Cash’s life,” according to its official press, to bring “Cash the man out from behind the legend.” Zimney uses Cash’s legendary Jan. 13, 1968, Folsom Prison concert as its central motif and the artists own words as its glue.
Interview conducted by Chris Longo. Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.