SXSW Film Review: The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash

The Man in Black as a rainbow of emotions in this tender documentary

There are music legends, and then there's Johnny Cash. An artist whose gravelly earnestness connected with audiences in seven decades.

Seriously. Could anyone else have even dreamed of having their first and last No. 1 albums 57 years apart? He was the through line from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan to Soundgarden. So it's long overdue that the Man in Black, who turned Dust Bowl folk into pop, made hippies love hillbilly gospel, and ended his career with one of the greatest four album runs of all time (the peerless American Recordings), receive a cinematic eulogy from a master of the music biographical documentary in The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash.

Thom Zimny is arguably (although, considering the scale and depth of his back catalog, absolutely) the Ken Burns of American rock. His works are always to be anticipated and appreciated for their humor and rigor, both for newcomers to a subject and devotees. However, like Burns, he has an established technique, a model on which he depends.

In Zimny's case, it's to take a pivotal life moment and crystallize his subject's life around it. With his last SXSW documentary, the epic two-part Elvis Presley: The Searcher, he used the legendary 1968 comeback special as a moment where Presley could have taken one of two paths after – and took the wrong one. With Cash, almost inevitably, it's the famous Fulsom Prison gig, where his defining traits – compassion for the underdog, faith, contrition, grief, hope, righteous anger and wholehearted forgiveness – came together, and the Man in Black was truly forged.

It's a remarkable journey to and from that point, and Zimny shows how pivotal it was. But there will always be limits to that kind of "one important day" thinking, and a sudden left turn into Cash's relationship with inmate-turned-musician Glen Sherley feels like a stretch, one that should either have been cut or, like such stories and diversions in The Searcher, been given four hours.

That's the only real complaint about The Gift: that it could, maybe should, be longer (allowing, then, time for his soul-crushing, decade-defining cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," and Justin Timberlake scolding MTV that his song "Cry Me a River" beating Cash for Best Male Video was "a travesty.") Zimny's chorus of unseen voices – Cash's family, peers, friends, and acolytes like Bruce Springsteen – meld so seamlessly with astonishing archive footage and poetic reconstruction that the man comes alive, in all his rough-hewn, self-destructive, humble, loving brilliance.

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash

24 Beats Per Second, World Premiere
Thursday, March 14, 2:30pm, Paramount Theatre
Saturday, March 16, 10:45am, Alamo Ritz 1

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