SXSW 2019: a morning with Johnny Cash – 16th March 2019 (Saturday, part 1)

By on Wednesday, 3rd April 2019 at 1:00 pm
 

Photo of Johnny Cash from the official SXSW Web site

I’ve spent time in March in Austin every year for the last 7 years. And yet, all this time, I have never seen a film that was part of SXSW. That all changed this year. Of the days I knew I would be in Austin, I looked at the films that were playing and when, and I found something that I could slot in on Saturday morning, when most revelers would still be asleep. Or hungover. Or both. ‘The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash’ is a new, authorised documentary on the Man in Black that I saw at the Alamo Ritz. It’s a welcome continuation for those of us whose knowledge of Cash’s history, personally and professionally, is limited to the dramatisation of his life portrayed in ‘Walk the Line’ superbly by Joaquin Phoenix.

Grief over the death of his brother in childhood, the freedom of the open road as part of touring, and the effect of the Folsom Prison concerts are the primary touchstones music documentarian director Thom Zimny and screenwriter Warren Zanes come back to again and again in this film. It is, as one might expect, a much more comprehensive review of Cash’s life from childhood to the end than ‘Walk the Line’ ever could be. It benefits from soundbites from first-hand interview tapes with Cash, his family and friends, and they serve to drive home the relenting reality of his life as you experience the film.

I have been thinking about Cash’s addiction to amphetamines during his early touring years over the last few days before writing this, and I can’t help but draw a line between the reality of artists having to do a lot of late night driving to get from town to town and the tragedy that befell Liverpool Her’s and their tour manager last week. Like any other job, there will always be inherent dangers to being a musician, but to continue progressing in your musical career shouldn’t be a risk to your health or kill you. I don’t know how we do this, and I know Help Musicians UK and similar organisations exist, but we have to continue providing support to the music community. We simply must.

I had not been aware of just what a big influence gospel music was on Johnny Cash. His mother, upon hearing his adolescent singing voice, told him, “God has his hand on you. Don’t ever forget the gift.” I found incredibly bittersweet that although this gift of an incredible voice brought joy and emotion to his many fans, the actual act of singing appears to have been how he felt he could attempt to exorcise the many battles raging in his mind. His description of begging his brother not to go to work the morning he died, based on his own premonition that something bad would happen to him if he went, is painfully poignant. The theme of mortality would haunt Cash his entire life. Through substance abuse and the decline of his career, it is touching how Cash’s career was revitalised late in his life when Rick Rubin believed in him and put his trust in his talent. I’d say God or some other divine being(s) had a hand in making that happen.

As is the case with many musicians, Cash’s children who were born during the earlier years of his career had a mostly absentee father have different recollections than John Carter Cash, who was born when Cash was much older and realised the importance of family. Soundbites from his children and friends add another level of authenticity that wouldn’t have been possible if this hadn’t been an authorised documentary. Taken together, the clips of interviews make you feel not like you’re being talked to but you’re part of the conversation. I know when I’m watching a documentary, I want to have a personal connection with the subject. ‘The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash’ succeeds in this in spades. Leaving the Ritz, I was covered in tears. I hope this film gets a worldwide distribution deal soon.

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