As a lover of music and also as a documentary geek, it doesn’t get any better for me than when I get my hands on a well done film that chronicles the artistic life of one of our greatest legends. I have enjoyed films that showcase up and comers, like Dig! for example (featuring Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols), where we see the hardships and compromises that come with a band’s attempt at gaining traction in todays mucical landscape. Instead of experienceing the illumination of docs like Dig!, there is extreme comfort gained from films like the new documentary, Johnny Cash’s America.
This remarkable film serves as more of an appreciation for the legendary role that Cash played than it seems to provide any sort of new and enlightening perspectives. We witness a parade of stars from Al Gore (comically and unironically dressed in all black) to Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, John Mellencamp, a jumpy Steve Earle, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson and even Jack Clement (in a choice more odd than Gore’s all-black ensemble is interviewed shirtless in a pool, displaying a body that isn’t exactly going to get him accused of using steroids). My favorite celebrity tid-bit in the film is in the “Family” chapter where Waco Brother and Mekon founder, Jon Langford effortlessly, but lovingly paints a striking and colorful portrait of Cash as the cameras roll. As is typical in many such documentaries, the opinions and thoughts of the folks being interviewed are often a tad melodramatic, but well-meaning. Actor Chris Cooper handles the duties of narrator admirably, yet isn’t immune from the slight sniffles of melodrama either. In the section of the film that discusses Cash’s faith, Cooper mentions how each “breath from Cash was a contradiction“. I would say that the repeated romanticizing of Cash’s life in the film is it’s only real downfall, but again, it’s understandable, as the film doesnt really aim to be a “down the middle”, educational or journalistic tool. The film provides great insight through Cash’s own words and voice throughout the film as well. Adding to the “insiders” nature of the doc are the interviews with Cash’s family, most notably daughter Roseanne Cash, son John Carter Cash and Cash’s sister Joanne, who provides perhaps the most powerful footage as she leads several family members in a short, simple prayer of togetherness at the gravesite of beloved older brother, Jack Cash, who died tragically during childhood. Following the prayer with an acapella version of The Carter Family classic, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, the praying family seems to answer the question that the song poses.
Along with the gravesite scene, there were many other striking images throughout the film. Footage of Cash touring his Arkansas childhood home, Cash visiting and meeting with Native-American leaders as well as American political leaders from multiple generations, blend with Cash cuttin’-up with Bob Dylan and the Highwaymen. This range of images provide a great cross-section of the experience that created this immense and seemingly mythical legend. The contradiction of Cash’s well-documented addictions and his equally well-documented faith in Jesus Christ provide the film with much fodder that helps describe Cash as the enigma he was, as it is practically impossible to be both sinner and saint in this current age while still being treasured.
As a whole this film will provide those unfortunate few who may be unfamiliar with Cash a nice and well-rounded intro to the many facets that made The Man in Black. For fans who have come to know Cash as a practical member of their own family, this should provide a warm, well-worn, family album in which we can look back on, reminisce and smile, recognizing the great contribution that this man made to our country’s musical and cultural landscape
About the author: I likes me some wine, women and waffles, not always in that order (but usually). Chaucer is cool, but fart jokes are even better. You feel like spikin' your country with a little soul or mix in a little rock without the roll? Lemme hear from ya!!