SXSW 2019: The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash is a beautifully made documentary that allows for the legendary singer to tell his own story.

An audio recording of Johnny Cash reveals that his mother told him, “Don’t ever forget the gift.”  What exactly is this gift?  “Singing, writing for my voice–that’s the gift.”

Through audio recordings from the 1990s, Cash discusses his childhood in Dyess, Arkansas.  While growing up, the radio would be a source of escapism according to son John Carter Cash.  The colony came as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. An enlistment in the United States Air Force would see a name change from J.R. to John R. Cash.  Eventually, he would sign with Sun Records under the name of Johnny Cash.

The move to Memphis would see the beginning of Cash’s legacy.  After all, Sun was home to quite a few legendary musicians.  Some of which are immortalized in a photo of the Million Dollar Quartet.  Cash would later move from Sun to Columbia Records.  The rest as they say is history.

Frequent Bruce Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny does a solid job with putting together the material at hand.  It’s always tricky with these documentaries.  Do you choose to go the all-archival footage route?  Or do you intersperse footage between interviews?  What Zimny ends up doing here is mixing in audio interviews from Cash collaborators with Cash’s own recordings.  There’s a solid balance here much to the film’s credit.  Anyway, the film is grounded by way of the January 1968 concert at Folsom Prison.  This concert would mark a landmark moment in his career.  It would lead to even more prison concerts down the road.

Thanks to the Cash estate archive, Zimny has access to a vast archive of materials.  Some of which were only recently found so this is a major win for Cash fans looking to see or hear something new.  Because of this, we’re able to get a better idea of who Johnny Cash was as a person.  Why did he make the decisions he did?  What led him to turn to drugs?  That’s the beauty of being able to listen to Cash tell his story.  While there’s the the usual approach of talking to friends and family, Cash more or less is allowed to tell his own story.

I remember watching Walk the Line in 2005.  If you’re not familiar, this is the Oscar-nominated Johnny Cash biopic.  As we know from more recent films, biopics can only tell so much of the story.  Even in a documentary such as this and as condensed as it may be, there’s a lot of material here.  Thankfully, we do not have to worry about the struggles that come with biopics.

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash reminds us that despite his personal battles Cash had quite the gift.

DIRECTOR:  Thom Zimny
FEATURING:  Johnny Cash

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash holds its world premiere during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival in the 24 Beats Per Second program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.