Every Monday, independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.
This week, POV is airing 1969’s Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, a real time capsule of a documentary about the legendary country musician. I am particularly struck by how director Robert Elstrom creates a portrait of Cash without needing any big, dramatic, gotcha’ moments or weepy-eyed confessions. The film feels content to show Cash on the road, singing, with his family, and out hunting, without digging any deeper than the music star would let it, which, for me, was far enough. So when I call it a time capsule, I say it in terms of its subject as well as its filmmaking technique. (I kept thinking how the film would have been different if Elstrom had shot it on video.)
What stands out in Johnny Cash, for me, more than Cash playing with a gum-chewing Bob Dylan (ok, still, that was pretty cool), are the rhythms of Cash’s conversations with friends and family, his sweating brow, the sometimes difficult-to-understand southern accents and even the too-dark scenes where images aren’t totally clear. But, in the end, it is Cash’s clear, beautiful singing voice that stands out most in the film. Which, of course, is as it should be.
If there is any true standard of what makes a great film, then longevity must be one of the greatest of arbiters. But how does Elstrom, who is still working as a cinematographer, feel about how the film was received at the time? Did he have the same aspirations of, say, an Alex Gibney, who wants to get his films distributed properly to as many people as possible? I know that the Maysles brothers, at the time, were disappointed by how the now much vaunted Grey Gardens was received at the time of its initial release. Looking back now, does Elstrom feel he got his due?