Very much in the manner of an “unplugged” acoustic album that showcases the musicianship of a major artist without distracting flash and filigree, “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” is a tightly focused yet impressively multifaceted documentary that attempts nothing less than to delve past familiar myths and illuminate the soul of its fabled subject. Director Thom Zimny, who took a similarly stripped-to-essentials approach to another immortal pop-culture icon in his widely acclaimed “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” has fashioned, with the full cooperation of the Cash estate, a richly textured portrait infused with sympathetic but unvarnished honesty, one that likely will endure as necessary source material for any future biographer of the Man in Black.
The free-form narrative designed by Zimny and scripter Warren Zanes is anchored in the legendary 1968 concert Johnny Cash gave for inmates at California’s Folsom State Prison, an event that was recorded on a phenomenally popular (and, for Cash, providentially career-reviving) live album, “At Folsom Prison,” and helped solidify his image as a reformed outlaw — and potential backslider — whose hard living and hell-raising could have led to his own extended stretch behind bars.
Time and again, “The Gift” returns to Folsom, sometimes to exemplify Cash’s deep and abiding concern for underdogs, sometimes for its role in the elevation of artist into icon, and sometimes to underscore its importance as one of many turning points in a lifetime that appeared to careen constantly between success and disaster, sin and redemption.
The movie moves back and forth in time to dutifully recall many other of those turning points — but only the ones that have been deemed absolutely necessary by Zimny and Zanes for us to better understand the man behind the music. Don’t expect to see much here about Cash’s part-time TV and movie acting career, or hear much about his concerts and recordings with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the country supergroup the Highwaymen. As interesting as those facets of Cash’s life might be, they are irrelevant to the story that the filmmakers have chosen to tell.
“The Gift” is largely an oral history, with scads of unseen interviewees ranging from Cash’s children (Rosanne Cash, John Carter Cash) and former band mates to ardent admirers (Bruce Springsteen, Robert Duvall) and music historians giving testimonies to the accompaniment of archival photos and footage (along with just a smattering of newly filmed scene-setting in uninhabited locations). Much of the narration is provided by Cash himself, heard on interview tapes he recorded with author Patrick Carr for the 1997 book “Cash: An Autobiography.” He can be matter-of-factly heartbreaking, such as when he remembers a father who never physically abused him, but never expressed love either. And he can be deeply affecting, such as when he recalls the time his mother offered praise for his uniquely expressive gravelly tenor, with words that would later inspire this movie’s title: “God has his hand on you. Don’t ever forget the gift.”
At no point, however, does Cash sound prevaricating or self-pitying. Even when he stresses that his near-fatal addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates began at a time when doctors routinely (and often recklessly) wrote prescriptions to anyone who wanted them, he makes no excuses for his relapses into substance abuse, his heavy drinking, and the other self-destructive excesses that led to the end of his first marriage and seriously threatened his relationship with wife and collaborator June Carter Cash.
Rosanne Cash notes that her father “worked out his deepest problems with his audience,” often exorcising personal demons while moving through an extraordinary diversity of genres (country, rockabilly, folk, gospel, pop) and making contact with every conceivable demographic. And while Cash sporadically triumphed over his demons and addictions, his friends and family often were helpless witnesses to his defeats. “The Gift” makes it abundantly clear that the upbeat and optimistic ending of the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” was, at best, misleading. On the other hand, the documentary builds to its own kind of happy ending, showing how Cash, after years of treading water with concerts and recordings that we hear him brutally dismiss as “burlesques” of himself, regained his sense of self-worth and reconnected with audiences thanks to his association with producer Rick Rubin, the mastermind behind Cash’s “American Recordings” albums.
“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” is by no means a complete picture. Anyone interested in learning more about the man and his music should consider as supplemental viewing Bestor Cram’s “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” (2009) and Beth Harrington’s “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music” (2014), to name just two other relevant documentaries. (And lest there be any doubt about Cash’s enduring impact, look no further than Rosanne Cash’s extraordinary YouTube-available music video for “Walking Wounded,” from a 2018 album drawn from her father’s heretofore unpublished letters and poems.) But acknowledging that doesn’t in any way diminish the power or minimize the achievement of this new film, which is bound to make both longtime fans and the newly converted all the more grateful for the gift that was, and continues to be, Johnny Cash.