"Johnny Cash: The Man, His Words, His Music"


by Jonathan Silverman

I watched The Man, His World, His Music a few years earlier as part of my research for my own book about Johnny Cash and found it the single most mesmerizing work I encountered about Cash. It stands with Christopher Wren's Winners Got Scars Too as the best at capturing Cash at his height of his first comeback in the late 1960s because it shows Cash's appeal by letting Cash, his music, and er, his world speak for themselves.

Johnny Cash

Indeed, what strikes me the most about The Man are two related aspects: the lack of narration and the thematic coverage Elfstrom provides. He takes us from subject to subject, place to place, and by the time we finish, we get an alternative but persuasive idea about Cash: that he is complicated. We see little of the darkness that is at the center of the Johnny Cash narrative (and the movie, Walk the Line), but rather a man who engages a variety of people and ideas. He talks to fans, aspiring songwriters, Bob Dylan, producers, and reporters with equal ease.

Elfstrom shows us Cash's complexity through a loosely thematic organization; the documentary covers Cash's engagement with the country music genre, Native Americans, prison, the South, farming, celebrity, religion, travel, rural life, the home and family--any work trying to understand Cash needs to capture all this and more. As someone who is working on Cash, I can tell you that these subjects rise again and again, and that Elfstrom's framing and emphasis of them are well placed.

He uses songs, interviews, and images in such a way that the engaged viewer can follow the progress of the documentary without narration, though I suspect that unengaged viewers might have some difficulty making the connections that Elfstrom makes. Documentaries about people can be predictable in the way they use chronology or metaphor heavy handedly and I found Elfstrom's trust of the viewer thrilling, even in the most low key moments.

Some viewers may find The Man familiar. That's because Mark Romanek made extensive use of the footage in the video for "Hurt," including scenes on the bus, the scenes in Dyess, a cross arch from Wounded Knee, and some concert footage. Romanek uses the material a little differently, focusing more on the dramatic aspects of the footage in concert with the video he filmed of Cash and the House of Cash museum (as well as scenes from Cash's pet religious project, Gospel Road; the video features some scenes of Jesus grimacing--that's Elfstrom!). But the concept of using filmed/videoed material as the way of telling the story is similar.

And other viewers might find The Man to be somewhat at odds with James Mangold's Walk the Line, which focuses on the love story between Cash and June Carter. A charitable explanation is that the video takes place after the movie, when Cash has found some peace and prosperity after the difficulty Mangold displays; Elfstrom explains in a revelatory interview (featured on the PBS site) that he received pressure to emphasize his substance abuse problems. But I think Elfstrom makes the right choice, Cash was a willing participant in both Walk the Line and The Man, but it's clear that The Man, despite its contemporary and ultimately flattering view of Cash, shows a deeper and fuller picture of a remarkable American artist.

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