Way back when British guitar virtuoso Joe Brown was a beginning session guy he got to back a visiting American artist. Young Joe was an able technician but had yet to learn some points of professionalism. Part way through “Five foot high and rising” Joe tired of duplicating the interminable root/fifth of the Tennessee Three and tossed in a hot little lick. Before its echo had died Johnny Cash stopped the show. “Joe!! There’ll be no pickin’ there!”
Because the concert was being streamed live to the BBC the promoters were livid, sacking Joe Brown right after the performance. Johnny Cash got to hear of this and immediately demanded the guitar player be rehired.
That little story, which sums up a lot about Johnny Cash, isn’t in the latest movie about him, The Gift, but much other good stuff is. Coverage of the artist’s life is comprehensive, from his first years to his death. In the early days, Johnny’s parents were relatively lucky. A Roosevelt scheme allotted them a small bungalow on twenty acres of land, and a mule. This kickstart for small capitalism may have looked good on paper; in real life it was barely survival, back-breaking work raising cotton. Johnny Cash sought a better future first as a car assembler, then in the US Air Force. While stationed in Germany, with few recreational facilities, the young serviceman began developing his singing and songwriting, turning professional soon after.
The movie gives an unvarnished view of a musician’s life on the road, the ups, downs and sheer hard slog, the almost inevitable neglect of family. Throughout the movie Johnny’s son and daughters speak candidly of the better and worse sides of their dad, his drug addiction and shortcomings as a husband and parent.
The main claim to fame of Johnny Cash is being a singer of down to earth country music with one of the most distinctive voices in the business (the gift). More so than in, for example, the recent Elton John movie, we get to hear a range of the artist’s work, early and late. The Highwaymen is a surprising omission but much else gets well covered. Towards the end, the old man sits down and makes an all-acoustic album with just himself and his guitar, a return to the beginning like the closing of a circle.
Along with a good presentation of the music, two constant themes keep reappearing in the film. There’s the Christian fundamentalism, underscored by the early death of Johnny’s elder brother Jack. On his deathbed, after an horrific industrial accident, Jack tells his grieving family that he hears angels and sees the heavenly gates open to receive him. Depending on your point of view, this could have been the effects of strong pain killers filtered through an already religious youth or it could have been the real deal. In the mind of Johnny Cash, there was no doubt; Jack was on his way to heaven and one day, God willing, Johnny would be joining him there. Gospel songs formed a constant part of future shows and the movie even shows him willingly assisting arch fundamentalist Billy Graham.
The movie’s other theme is Johnny Cash’s humanitarian concern, as revealed by his consistent support for African-American artists and prison reform . Several times through the film various scenes from the memorable San Quentin concert are revisited. A reminder of the singer’s empathy and integrity, remaining somehow intact through the twists and trials of a long journey.