The title of Thom Zimny’s new Johnny Cash documentary, The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, is a reference to something Cash’s mother said to him after hearing him sing as a boy. “God has his hand on you,” she said, “don’t ever forget the gift.” In that one quote, Cash’s mother sums up the two driving forces of Cash’s life, God, the search for spirituality despite the darkness that surrounds and occasionally envelops us all, and that famous baritone voice, that was both able to inhabit a wide-range of American personas and experiences while championing the underdogs of our society.
Though mostly a cut-and-dry chronological look at The Man in Black’s life, The Gift uses Cash’s iconic 1968 Folsom Prison concert as an anchor. That concert, Cash’s children John and Roseanne contextualize off-screen, is the distillation of Cash’s career and the essence of him. Cash believed in reform and forgiveness, probably because he often needed both. He performed tirelessly in front of audiences like those inmates because if he didn’t, he’d probably be sitting among them. Other feature explorations of Cash, like biopic Walk the Line, made it seem like Cash wrestled his demons early on and lived happily ever after, but The Gift proves that figurative Folsom was never too far away.
Like Zimny’s recent Elvis Presley doc, The Searcher, The Gift features interviews from family, friends, and famous fans like Bruce Springsteen, Rick Rubin, and Jackson Browne, but wisely he relegates their presence to their voices only. Though certain contributions, like kindred spirit Springsteen summarizing Cash’s timeless music as “a combination of sin and salvation — Saturday night and Sunday morning” or John and Roseanne’s candid insights about their father’s struggles with addiction in the ‘80s, do their duty, the documentary is at its best when Cash does the talking himself. Zimny had access to tapes of interviews that Cash recorded with Patrick Carr in 1997 as the pair worked on Cash: The Autobiography and that wise, wistful tone is the very same quality that makes so much of Cash’s music magical.
Using still photos, archival footage, and sweeping shots of the rural Americana roads and wide-open spaces Cash traversed and sang about as a backdrop, The Gift examines the qualities that made Cash’s music so powerful. “It was succinct,” country star Dwight Yoakam says, and many others point to Cash’s precise use of language, his addition by subtraction emptiness, and his primitive but commanding musicianship as keys to his enduring legend. Many facts, about Cash’s deceased brother, his troubles with amphetamines and barbiturates, and his undying love of gospel music, are common pop culture knowledge, but the doc smartly highlights Cash’s social consciousness and contributions to both country music (creating country’s first concept album) and television (his genre-hopping Johnny Cash Show that featured a murderer’s row of famous live performances).
The Gift really shines when it covers Cash’s relationship to his second wife, June Carter. Their love story served as the heart of Walk the Line, but here we see that their “storybook” romance wasn’t always sunshine and roses. However, despite the hardships, their love for each other endured, making this representation of their relationship somehow more romantic and affecting. Zimny also spins gold out of Cash’s pre-Rick Rubin latter days, an era that he admits to “burlesquing” himself during, that’s often glossed over. When Cash is able to rekindle his career and reach a new generation with Rubin, it feels like a real triumph.
A story about faith, redemption, and the transcendent, lasting of one man’s voice, The Gift is a love letter to the work of Johnny Cash and roadmap of the influences that drove him. Cash was never afraid to speak up for what he believed, and though often remembered as one of the original rebels, he was never without a cause. Johnny Cash’s voice may have been his gift, but the example that he set as a searcher, an artist, and an evolving, never quite complete person is his true gift to all of us.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.