×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Winding Stream’

This deftly crafted documentary celebrates a country music dynasty — the Carter and Cash family.

With:
Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, John Carter Cash, Janette Carter, John Prine, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Grey DeLisle, Murry Hammond, Carlene Carter.

Rocker-turned-documentarian Beth Harrington (“Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly”) celebrates the Carter and Cash family and its enduring contributions to country, folk and roots music in “The Winding Stream,” an impressively researched and deftly crafted feature that doubtless will find an appreciative audience through exposure in home-screen platforms (especially public television) and regional fest screenings. The marquee value of performances by such diverse notables as Sheryl Crow, George Jones and the Carolina Chocolate Drops might help the doc also attract ticketbuyers in limited theatrical and nontheatrical playdates.

Clearly a long-gestating labor of love, “The Winding Stream” boasts among its highlights a revealing interview with an aged Johnny Cash, taped just weeks before the Man in Black’s death in 2003. But the movie is about much more than the most famous member of the musical dynasty, a point Harrington cheekily underscores by identifying Cash as “Maybelle Carter’s son-in-law.”

Indeed, Harrington goes all the way back to the early years of the 20th century to begin with A.P. Carter, the Virginia-born musician and amateur musicologist who helped preserve key elements of American cultural history (and earned a tidy sum in the bargain) by collecting “old-time music” throughout Appalachia for record companies.

Together with Sara, his wife, and Maybelle, Sara’s cousin, he founded the Carter Family, one of the first commercially successful country groups. The origins of this ensemble — and their definitive recordings of such standards as “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (a song later revised and better known as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) — are vividly detailed through Harrington’s artful employment of archival material and newly filmed accounts by historians and surviving family members. (Here and elsewhere, however, Harrington gets decidedly mixed results from using “animated” still photos, some of which come off as inadvertently comical.)

“The Winding Stream” recounts a colorful tale of personal and professional triumphs, breakups and reconstitutions while following the Carter Family over decades of touring and recording. Arguably the strangest twist in this saga: the group’s extended gig as regular performers on XERA, a multi-watt, Mexican-based border radio station operated by John R. Brinkley, a notorious quack who performed dozens of dubiously effective goat-gland transplants for gullible men desperate to revitalize their fading virility. Harrington provides just enough info about Brinkley, his grandiose claims and his multiple brushes with the law to whet appetites for some future documentary devoted solely to his outrageous exploits.

It was during the Carter Family’s run at XERA that an impressionable young listener in Dyes, Ark. — Johnny Cash — became aware of June Carter, one of Maybelle’s three performing daughters. “The Winding Stream” affectionately portrays June as a natural-born, well-nigh irresistible talent who likely wasn’t as technically accomplished a singer as her sisters Anita and Helen, but who far surpassed them in pure showmanship with her flair for comedy.

According to the film, Carter kinfolk reacted with a fair amount of dread when June and Johnny became an item. Harrington gives us some idea why the clan had just cause for concern by showing how Johnny could be at once amusingly engaging and ineffably unsettling in a vintage clip from a TV show hosted by folk singer Pete Seeger. Both Seeger and June Carter appear increasingly apprehensive, even while straining to smile, as Cash rambles on and on and on, obviously under the influence of something or other.

Cash inevitably looms large in “The Winding Stream,” but Maybelle Carter — or Mother Maybelle, as she was known to intimates and the general public — lays equal claim to being a star in the documentary’s cast of characters. She also figures into the movie’s funniest anecdote, when it’s recalled how she innocently misinterpreted the ’70s stoner tune “One Toke Over the Line” as a spiritual tune — and briefly considered recording it.

“The Winding Stream” is cogent and compelling as a pop-culture history lesson, and genuinely uplifting while it shows how contemporary artists — along with descendants like Rosanne and John Carter Cash — keep the legacy of A.P., Mother Maybelle, June and Johnny alive and thriving. There are several fine performances of Carter Family standards scattered throughout the film, but Murry Hammond’s haunting rendition of “In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain” is the uncontestable standout.

Film Review: 'The Winding Stream'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second), March 15, 2014. (Also in Cleveland, Nashville film festivals.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Beth Harrington Prods. production. Produced by Beth Harrington, Amy Harrington, Nancy Harrington. Executive producers, David Vernier, Christine Vernier. Co-producers, Tara Johnson-Medinger, Kelley Roy.

Crew: Directed by Beth Harrington. Camera (color, HD), Tom Shrider; editor, Greg Snider; music supervisors, Maryam Soleiman, JT Griffith; sound, Michael Gandsey; photoanimation and titles, Mike Olson; associate producers, Laura Ross, Ted Olsen.

With: Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, John Carter Cash, Janette Carter, John Prine, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Grey DeLisle, Murry Hammond, Carlene Carter.

More Film

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays

    Narendra Modi Wins New Mandate in Indian Election and Divides the Film Industry

    India has returned the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance coalition to power for a second term, with a huge mandate. In doing so, it polarized the film industry. The NDA won 351 seats out of a total of 542. The biggest democratic exercise in the world, more than 600 million Indians voted across six weeks. [...]

  • Director Dean DeBlois and online game

    'Dragon' Director Dean DeBlois and PUBG's CH Kim to Keynote 2019 VIEW Conference

    Dean DeBlois, director and executive producer of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and PUBG Corporation CEO CH Kim are the first keynote speakers announced for the 2019 VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, in October. Since it began 12 years ago, VIEW, which stands for Virtual Interactive Emerging World, has continually [...]

  • 'The Cordillera of Dreams' Review: Poetic

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Cordillera of Dreams'

    Rounding out his sublimely meditative, deeply personal documentary-essay trilogy on time, memory and the relationship of Chile’s breathtaking landscapes to its troubled human history, Patricio Guzmán delivers “The Cordillera of Dreams,” a haunting and allusive exploration of the cultural impact of the country’s most spectacular geological feature: its snowcapped mountain spine. Coming after the exploration [...]

  • Ari Emanuel Endeavor

    Endeavor IPO Filing Offers Details of Company's Financials, Leadership Pay Packages

    Endeavor’s IPO filing Thursday offers a hard look at the company’s financial performance during the past three years during a period of rapid growth for the company that’s home to UFC, WME, Professional Bull Riders and a clutch of other assets. Endeavor is generating solid free cash flow from operations and healthy adjusted earnings for [...]

  • Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala

    Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala: Mariah Carey, Kendall Jenner and Tiffany Trump

    Kendall Jenner caused a commotion when she arrived. Tiffany Trump went unrecognized until a member of the press pointed her out as she made her way down the carpet. And Mariah Carey flew in to perform a couple of songs. Welcome to this year’s AmfAR Gala Cannes, the AIDS organization’s annual — and largest — [...]

  • 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo' Review: Abdellatif

    Cannes Film Review: 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo'

    A simple but somehow atypical shot opens Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film: a serene closeup of a young woman’s face, as seen through the camera lens of Amir, a budding photographer still finding his perspective. Her expression is ambiguously tranquil, her long hair lightly rustled by a humid breeze, all softly lit by a sinking afternoon [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content