Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 April 2009
Source DVD screener
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Documentarian Bestor Cram’s film Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is not the last word on tumultuous life and career of the Man in Black, and that it doesn’t try to be is ultimately to its credit. Rather than attempting to pack his film with minutiae about the iconic musician, Cram takes a single moment in history – the recording of Cash’s acclaimed At Folsom Prison live album on January 13, 1968 – and examines how it shaped the singer-songwriter in our collective imaginations, as well as shedding light on the disparate, intersecting lives of those who were present that day. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison isn’t a biopic, but rather something more unusual and perhaps more interesting.
Cram mixes typical talking-head interviews with relevant clips of Cash performances, but he is forced to work around the fact that no video footage of the titular concert exists. I preferred when Cram chose to pair the music and interview snippets with uncluttered visual cues – images from modern day Folsom or Cash’s hometown of Dyess, Arkansas (recalling the no-fuss look of AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son), or photographer Jim Marshall’s evocative images from the day of the concert – to the more ornate flourishes, such as some opening animation to set to “Folsom Prison Blues” that feels busy and precious when paired with Cash’s straighforward, solid music. (Although another animated sequence, dramatizing Cash’s performance of the Shel Silverstein-penned Death Row account “25 Minutes to Go” is fun in its own rite, it doesn’t quite match the wicked gallows humor of Cash’s vocal.) But these are small quibbles with a fine documentary.
Culled from the work of Cash biographer Michael Streissguth, who acted as writer and co-producer, the film admirably sidesteps the impulse to simply lionize Cash, instead depicting the singer as a flawed but deeply compassionate man who was aware of his own mythmaking machinery. Some of the strongest moments of Cram’s film allow us glimpses behind that machinery. The At Folsom Prison album famously opens with the bass-voiced singer announcing, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by a rapturous cheer. But the documentary includes audio of Los Angeles radio personality Hugh Cherry directing the prisoners on how to react to Cash’s entrance, explicitly advising them not to cheer until Cash has delivered his humble opening line. Another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain is the inclusion of audio of “Crescent City Blues,” the song that quite obviously provided the musical and lyrical inspiration (to phrase it charitably) for Cash’s indelible “Folsom Prison Blues.” There’s also a revealing quote from Merle Haggard, who remembers Cash telling him that Haggard, an ex-convict, had lived the life that people only thought Cash had lived.
Whether any of this is news to you or not, the revelations in Cram’s film don’t diminish Cash, they simply draw a complicated man into sharper focus. Cash’s rebel spirit, his sympathy for the downtrodden, and his charisma as a performer are all so prominently on display that you can’t help but finish the film with the urge to turn up his galloping music, preferably as it streams from some tired FM radio as you cruise down Route 66. The film gives us the larger than life Cash, but it also enriches our understanding of him as a man. (There is something quietly moving about hearing so many of the interviewees refer to him as simply “John.”)
In addition to offering a nuanced portrait of Cash, the film contextualizes his album by offering a glimpse of life at Folsom prison as filtered through the experiences of a variety of individuals, including Folsom Prison guard Jim Brown and Millard Dedmon, a former inmate who calls Folsom the “worst place I’ve ever been in my life.” Emerging as the film’s most compelling and ultimately most chilling thread is the story of Glen Sherley, the Folsom inmate who wrote the song “Greystone Chapel,” which Cash performed at his famous concert (to Sherley’s joyful surprise). Cash took a great interest in Sherley after the concert and ultimately lobbied successfully for his release from prison, only to witness him languish on the outside after some initial success as a performer. (Musician Marty Stuart’s assessment that the cutthroat music industry is a less-than-ideal setting for a man fresh out of prison is difficult to argue with.) Cash’s Folsom Prison setlist, packed with songs about hard times behind bars, including the short, tough-to-shake story-song “The Wall,” finds its haunting counterpart in the stories of the men who he performed for on that day in 1968, and like the album itself, Cram’s film pushes its audience to consider and reconsider the way that our society deals with the convicted and the condemned.
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