Written by Fantasma el Rey
The award-winning PBS documentary series P.O.V., now in its 21st season, will proudly present Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music on Tuesday August 5th. This rarely seen gem by Bob Elfstrom was filmed in 1968-69 while Johnny Cash was at one of the highest points of his career. Bob and his crew, consisting of “My camera, my sound recordist Alan Dater,” were able to capture the Man In Black drug free and in good spirits as he works, relaxes at home and reminisces with old friends. The film blends live performances and scenes of everyday life very well.
Today, Johnny’s overall life and exploits are well known, from his youth in the cotton fields of Dyess, Arkansas to his days at Sun Records, his marriage to June Carter and his reemergence as a musical outlaw legend. Elfstrom’s film covers a bit of Johnny’s past in his own words but is a portrait of the man at that one moment in time and his career when the sky was the limit and the future was as bright as June’s smile. The live At Folsom Prison album was his biggest-selling record and he was riding its wave, one that would see more hit songs and a television show that would run for 58 episodes from 1969-71. But that is in the future and the Johnny of Elfstrom’s film isn’t concerned about that; he’s living well and doing what he loves with the people he loves and that’s what matters.
Johnny seems comfortable with the camera as it follows him from place to place, the tour bus, the stage, and home. We get see him perform at a prison near Christmas time and at a Native American Indian reservation close to the Wounded Knee massacre site. He and June joke and interact with the inmates, composed mostly of young greasy-haired hoods and depression-era men, making them roar with cheer and laughter, and then they tour the Wounded Knee site with a grandson of one of its victims and a tribal elder dressed in traditional ceremonial attire as guides. The viewer is also present as Johnny receives his award for Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards for At Folsom Prison.
Yet the moments that are best are those of Johnny with the folks that he loves best and holds most dear: June, his family, and his friends. Whether its on the tour bus driving to a show and talking youth and cotton picking with rockabilly king Carl Perkins or sitting at home with June picking his guitar and talking about recently written songs and country music, he holds your attention. Johnny has that gift of making people listen when he talks and it’s through those talks that we get glimpse of his life and beliefs and how they shape his music.
Through the camera’s eye we follow Johnny back stage at shows where he talks with fans of all ages and young musicians hoping to make a go at country music. We are there as Johnny and a gum-chewing Bob Dylan record “One Too Many Mornings” as Dylan works on his Nashville Skyline album. We even get to go along as Johnny, June, and his sister Louise visit the Cash family home in Dyess and recall what it was like to live there and how Mom and Daddy (Carrie and Ray) made ends meet.
Throughout the documentary the music of Johnny Cash fills our ears and our heart as he tells the story behind some of his songs (“Big Foot”) and explains the meaning of others (“Great Speckled Bird”) or playing in the background of scenes (“Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station”). Additional songs performed and used in the film include “Ring Of Fire,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Land Of Israel,” “Jackson” (with June), “Orange Blossom Special,” “Busted,” “Big River,” “The Long Black Veil,” and of course “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Bob Elfstrom has done a magnificent job in preserving and documenting this moment in time and the life of a legend. In subtle ways we get the story of Johnny’s life in his own words as he saw it. We can see, hear, and understand why the world and his family love him as much as they do. You don’t have to be a die-hard Johnny Cash fan to appreciate what Elfstrom has given us by truly bringing to life Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music. It’s easy to see why P.O.V. would choose this film to air on their series. Check your local listing to catch the point of view of Johnny Cash in 1969.