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Film Update

  • August 5, 2008

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash in 1969

Johnny Cash in 1969

In the years that followed Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, Johnny Cash was no stranger to the big and small screens. From 1969 to 1971, Cash hosted a variety show on national television that cemented his place as America's most recognized country western singer and showcased the work of younger singer-songwriters. During the 1970s, he acted in several films, including A Gunfight (1971) with Kirk Douglas, and the made-for-TV movies Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978, with June) and The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1981).

Cash also continued to tour throughout the 1970s and 1980s with his family singing group, which included Mother Maybelle Carter, the Carter Sisters, (Helen, June, and Anita) and the Statler Brothers. With the 1994 release of his widely acclaimed album, American Recording, Cash regained some of the commercial success he lost during the 1980s. The album spotlights him performing acoustically, and features not only some of his own songs, but also songs written by others, including Loudon Wainwright, Tom Waits and Nick Lowe. Cash won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording for the album. His 1996 Unchained album, featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band, won the Grammy for Best Country Album of the Year.

Health problems made touring impossible in the late 1990s, but Cash continued to record and made the occasional public appearance. His striking video for "Hurt," a song written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, earned six nominations for the MTV Video Music Awards, winning one (for Best Cinematography) and gaining the notice of a younger generation.

Cash died on September 12, 2003, almost four months to the day after June Carter Cash's death.

Filmmaker Bob Elfstrom

Johnny Cash: Bob Elfstrom

Bob Elfstrom today

Forty years later, filmmaker Bob Elfstrom reminisces about the film and the time he spent on the road with Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Elfstrom: We were all very young. I was 31, a young, inexperienced filmmaker. I had been shooting and directing at that point for maybe eight or nine years. I think in retrospect that he was at his pinnacle. His voice was beautiful. His life was in order. He was hungry for the audience. He had made the crossover out of country western music into all other realms of music. And I think he was happy with himself and with life.

I'm able to look at it in a couple of ways. I can divorce myself from being one of the filmmakers who made the film and enjoy it just at a visceral level. It's wonderful. Or I can immerse myself in the filmmaking process and say that at that point I was a rather inexperienced filmmaker. All of us were — Alan and and Roy and Harry. But I was able to pull it off because of enthusiasm, trust, youthful bravado and unfounded confidence. There was a bit of derring-do to it.

If I had to do that film again today, it would certainly be different. My guess is probably not as good. John would have been as good, but I wouldn't have been as good, nor would Alan and the others who were involved. I think I could have photographed it — given my experience since then — better, perhaps a little bit better. But I don't know if it would have improved the film. I'm doubtful. I'm doubtful because it had my youth and my enthusiasm. I was reasonably unjaded. I was innocent. Everything was new to me. The world of country music was new, so no, I don't think I could make a better film today.

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In the middle of the song, both John and Bob [Dylan] forgot the lyrics. So the recording session stopped while people scampered around the Columbia Records building trying to find the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song.”

— Robert Elfstrom, Filmmaker

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