“People want their myths,” Roseanne Cash says late in The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, and it’s true. The late Man in Black has been immortalized several times before, most notably in the 2005 Oscar-winning biopic Walk the Line, most recently in Ken Burns’ Country Music docuseries, and in at least two other feature-length documentaries.
Thom Zimny’s The Gift isn’t particularly interested in the idea of Johnny Cash, musical legend, not any more than it’s interested in putting a polish on the finer details of the many tragic aspects of Cash’s life. All the familiar turns of fate are addressed — his drug abuse, grim family history, and friendship with prison-inmate-turned-musician Glen Sherley among them — but they’re communicated with the understanding that we’ve heard them before, familiar yet vulnerable like tales told over a family meal. Zimny’s focus remains not on Cash’s cultural mythology or impact, but instead on what each phase of his life meant to Cash himself, as both man and artist.
The Gift achieves this artistic focus through archival footage, audio from Cash’s biographical interviews, and the involvement of several musicians and family members who knew Cash personally. Zimny forgoes the expected talking-head documentary style, never showing commenters like Bruce Springsteen and Emmylou Harris. Instead, he lets their voiceover lead old video reels that have often been edited to match the pace of a Cash song or the tone of the story being told. Indeed, the film’s editing is its strongest suit; with the liberal inclusion of Cash’s music and scenes from home videos, the biography starts simple and builds upon itself, much like a Cash song, so that by the end it’s become overwhelming in its humanity.
Zimny makes room to discuss some lesser-known Cash stories, as well. It’s clear from early on that Cash is more than just a singer, and as The Gift walks us through the decades of his life, it also shows us the many roles he took on: hitmaker, drug addict, activist, family man, Christian, widower, and finally, statesman of the industry. It’s easy to mythologize a man who put on a live album inside a prison at a time when prison reform was the last thing on anyone’s mind, or who faced threats from the KKK, or who admitted to at one point to taking up to 100 uppers and downers a day, yet nothing in the documentary is more grounding than Cash’s music itself.
The only non-archival footage in the film is of a seemingly driverless tour bus, filled with relics of Cash’s career, and later, after a period during which Cash felt like he was “burlesquing himself” and wanted to start anew, of those relics hitting the water, thrown into the lake behind his house. Of course, the man isn’t there in these shots, but he’s in the words we hear and the songs he sings, in the simple tunes and stories and in that powerful voice that always pulls us back to earth.