Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: ‘Johnny Cash’, 40 Years Later

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Every Monday, independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

Tom RostonThis 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.)

Johnny Cash singing in 1969What 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?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Michael

    FOREIGNID: 16832
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    this film was amazing

  • Seth

    FOREIGNID: 16833
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    This film shows a man and his loving wife with a mission to reach out to the down trodden and those who have little or no voice in Society or who think that Society has forgotten them. What a great Tribute to the contributions of Johnny Cash and his family to our great nation which should not be forgotten…

  • http://HTML Jeannine Davies

    FOREIGNID: 16834
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    You may use HTML tags for style and links.
    I enjoye watching pbs so often you have a variety of programme .
    What I like best is about history and when you bring back some peoples I used to know when I was young.
    Congratulation to you and all the people who are parts of your station.
    M E R C I
    Jeannine Davies

  • Jill

    FOREIGNID: 16835
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    This is the best documentary I have seen on Johnny Cash, Elvis or anyone else. I always loved Johnny Cash and his music, but after seeing your documentary it made me realize what a wonderful person he really was. It was indeed a great trubute to a great man. Note: the filming was fantastic – I loved the close ups especially, well done!

  • Alexandra Markum

    FOREIGNID: 16836
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I was so young when Johnny Cash was in his prime. Now..looking at his music a little more seasoned by life I realize what a gifted artist, and story teller he was. He drew you in with his personna and unexpected poetry.
    I appreciate your broadcasting this show again.

  • Alexandra Markum

    FOREIGNID: 16837
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I was so young when Johnny Cash was in his prime. Now..looking at his music a little more seasoned by life I realize what a gifted artist, and story teller he was. He drew you in with his personna and unexpected poetry.
    I appreciate your broadcasting this show again.

  • Fran Ruchalski

    FOREIGNID: 16838
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Without a doubt, that was the best documentary I’ve seen on Johnny Cash. While the Hollywood blockbuster was good, this was truly better. I couldn’t stop watching if I wanted to. The more I watched it, the more I wanted to see. I have always been a fan of the Man in Black, but now I know more about the man behind the legend, and my admiration for him has grown considerably. This film was so good at allowing us to see who he really was and how he thought. Johnny is one of those few people, those legends, that come along only once, and his passing left a gaping hole in our collective consciousness that will never be filled. I’m sure he’s happy singing by June’s side once more. I really appreciate your broadcasting of this fine film.

  • http://www.cloudpublishing.com susan edwards

    FOREIGNID: 19789
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    i particularly like the part where johnny cash listens to the young man play his guitar and harmonica and sing at the intermission of the country music awards. watching johnny cash’s face as he listens, then asks for another song, then offers encouragement is beautiful. it says so much.

  • Diane Crichlow

    FOREIGNID: 19805
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    As always, PBS has given us television worth watching. Tonight’s program on Johnny Cash was the best program we’ve watched in a very long time. You truly captured the essence of who the man was and despite some of his human failings, he was a very fine person and a legendary entertainer. In a time when entertainment is about the “celebrity” and the obscene, we are grateful for PBS.
    Thank you!

  • http://free-nx.com Nehaasen

    FOREIGNID: 22943
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Now..looking at his music a little more seasoned by life I realize what a gifted artist, and story teller he was. He drew you in with his personna and unexpected poetry.
    Free nexon cash

  • Rochelle Ameri

    FOREIGNID: 24873
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    A fantastic documentary done beautifully about a great artist. I could watch this over and over and never get enough.
    Thank you.