Over the past two years, Thom Zimny has become the leading director of musical documentaries. At the start of last year, he led the Elvis Presley: the researcher, which performed at several film festivals before landing on the HBO menu. At the end of last year, Zimny’s Springsteen on Broadway was added to Netflix offerings the day after the singer’s 14-month-old one-man show closed in New York’s Theater District. And last month, Zimny’s The Gift: Johnny Cash’s Journey premiered at South by Southwest’s Film Festival.
All three are stunning portraits of iconic artists. The subject matter is important, of course, but it’s Zimny’s treatment of it that sets these images apart. Springsteen on Broadway was a simple documentation of a standalone performance, and while she does her job with admirable clarity and distraction-free focus, it doesn’t reflect Zimny’s emerging style as much as the Presley and Cash movies. The last two films introduce welcome changes to the musical documentary.
On the one hand, Zimny makes a clear separation between the visual and the audio. For example, he uses a lot of talking heads on the audio track of both films but never shows the heads on the screen. There are few things as visually boring as looking at a chest photo on top of an old man talking about things that happened a long time ago. Words may or may not be fascinating, but the picture is not.
As his interviewees speak (and for the movie Cash, they include Rosanne Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Rick Rubin and many more), Zimny fills the screen with vintage footage of Presley or Cash, with bass music or not. music at all. Sometimes he uses that old Ken Burns trick to create new images of where the events described happened. No one is present in these scenes, and the atmosphere of the place emerges. And because place is central to both of these stories, it is an effective strategy.
And sometimes Zimny recreates scenes, but not in the awkward fashion of some old documentary filmmakers. You never see faces in these re-staged footage, just props like pills, guitars, or windshields and maybe a shoulder, back, or hand. This, too, is effective, as we see a visual representation of what is being described on the audio track without ever being prompted to believe that someone else’s face belongs to Presley or Cash. It’s as if those timeless scenes of driving down a freeway until the next gig or shaking pills in an open palm have been repeated thousands of times, and Presley or Cash were just an iteration of the model.
Lots of songs are included in every movie, of course, but Zimny made the wise decision in both cases to ask Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready to compose and record an original soundtrack, as if it were. of a conventional dramatic film with scripted dialogues. McCready’s instrumental music is barely noticeable in the background, but it unifies the different voices, both spoken and sung, with music that never quotes the songs of the subjects but reinforces the mood and continuity of each section.
After The Gift: Johnny Cash’s Journey Screened at SXSW, Zimny and John Carter Cash (the only child Cash had with his second wife June Carter) took to the stage at the Alamo Drafthouse to talk about the film. Zimny, who looked a bit of a teacher in his dark blazer, translucent-rimmed glasses, and salt-and-pepper beard, explained that he structured the Presley and Cash films around a pivotal moment in each other’s lives. man. For Presley, it was the 1968 Comeback Special on NBC. For Cash, it was the famous performance at Folsom Prison in California the same year.
Gift opens with new images of the stone fortress penitentiary door, followed by gray and white images of Cash and his wife walking through the courtyard. Soon Cash himself is on stage, a few feet from the inmates, joking with them, telling stories and playing the songs the prisoners once heard on the radio in the real world. The script (written by musician Warren Zanes) makes it clear what a career bet a live album from a prison was and just how determined Cash was to reconnect with the low and the outside.
This openness and Zimny’s repeated returns to this event throughout the film allow her to disrupt the progression of Cradle-to-Grave events that any biographical film is tempted to follow. The filmmakers return to the cotton fields of Arkansas where Cash grew up and where he lost his beloved older brother Jack in a power saw accident. The film follows him to the military in Germany, his newlywed days in Memphis, and his first attempts at professional music.
But Folsom Prison casts a shadow over everything. It’s something he’s heading towards – maybe as a convict, maybe as a guest country music star – something he has to negotiate, one way or another. He’s been fortunate enough to come out of extreme rural poverty to become a kind of comfort, but he can’t afford to lose his connection to that poverty because that defines his core audience.
In Germany he saw the 1951 film Inside the walls of Folsom prison, wrote a poem about it and finally put the words to the melody of Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues”. The original recording for Sun Records became a No.4 country single in 1956, and the 1968 live version recorded at Folsom Prison itself rose to No.1.
In the song’s third verse, the song’s narrator hears the rumble and whistle of a train passing from inside his cell and thinks of those “rich people eating in a fancy diner; they probably drink coffee and smoke big cigars. Because the songwriter knows that his character is trapped not only by a veritable prison of concrete and steel, but also by the economic prison of poverty. And although Cash had never known prison life, he knew poverty by heart. And like an escaped prisoner on the run, he was once again fleeing from being trapped like this, even if he had to take pills to stay one step ahead of the imaginary hellhounds on his trail.
Zimny traces the effect of these pills in photographs that show Cash’s face and body shriveling from fleshy to skeletal. The film tells the poignant story of Cash’s suicide attempt in Nickajack Cave near Chattanooga in 1967 and June’s dramatic rescue. He tells how he rebuilt his career on the triumph of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, how he relapsed again, and how he rebuilt his career once again through his recordings with producer Rick Rubin. And Gift tells this story largely with Cash’s own voice as the narration.
This is crucial for the success of the film, and it hardly happened. In fact, the film was in its final stages of production when John Carter Cash got a call from Patrick Carr, the reporter who co-wrote Johnny’s. Cash: the autobiography. Carr still had the audio tapes of the interviews for the book and asked John Carter if he would like to have them.
“I recut the movie when the tapes came in,” Zimny said during the question-and-answer session.
It made a huge difference. The voices of others are still on the soundtrack, but Johnny’s voice dominates, and this craggy, unwaveringly honest baritone gives this film a personal voice that few musical documentaries can match.
“He was a very simple man,” John Carter said of his father during the question and answer session. “He was very flawed and it shows in this movie. But I look at him, and I feel like I’m back in the room with him, and that doesn’t happen very often anymore. “