Johnny Cash's America is a two-disc CD/DVD combo that packages the titular television documentary with its unusually purposeful soundtrack disc.
Broadcast as part of the A&E network's Biography series in October and created by local writer/filmmaker Robert Gordon (It Came From Memphis; the Muddy Waters biography Can't Be Satisfied) in partnership with Los Angeles filmmaker Morgan Neville, Johnny Cash's America takes an unconventional look at a well-worn subject.
Rather than a straight biography of Cash, the film is more a thematic biography of the man, his music, and the complicated relationship between the iconic Cash and the country that he loved — and that loved him right back. The documentary focuses on meaning, dividing its 90-minute running time into sections with the titles "Protest," "Truth," "Faith," and "Justice."
The film mixes tremendous footage (Cash on stage at San Quentin mocking a guard, singing "Jackson" with a sheepish but clearly turned-on June Carter, telling Dan Rather about his refusal to sing a song called "Welfare Cadillac" after Richard Nixon requests it) with a vibrant collection of interviews that range from family members (Cash's sister, his cousin, his children) to contemporaries (bandmates, childhood friends, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan, the latter explaining that "Johnny Cash was more like a religious figure to me. Still is.") to inheritors (such as Steve Earle and Snoop Dogg, who both speak persuasively about the compassion of Cash's Folsom Prison concert) to politicians (Al Gore and Lamar Alexander offering bipartisan Tennessee testimony).
There are also a couple of contemporary Memphians in the mix: Producer Jim Dickinson offers typically smart and entertaining comments while managing to sneak in a reference to professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage. And local musician Amy LaVere is shown playing her upright bass in front of the Arcade Restaurant before sliding into a booth to talk about Cash's living legacy in the city that launched his career.
The soundtrack disc, like the film, refuses to merely rehash the familiar. There are a few Cash standards here — his "protest song" manifesto "Man in Black," early Sun hits "Big River" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" — but mostly Johnny Cash's America shines a light into the rich nooks and crannies of Cash's discography: train songs ("Come Long and Ride This Train"), rural life ("Pickin' Time"), Native-American culture ("Big Foot"), gospel ("Were You There [When They Crucified My Lord]"), and a progressive, vernacular strain of patriotism (a previously unreleased reading of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"). Best of all is the Dylanesque "Singing in Vietnam Talkin' Blues," a plainspoken, passionate account of Cash and June traveling to Southeast Asia to perform for U.S. troops at the height of the war.
Even for Johnny Cash fans who think they have a pretty complete collection, Johnny Cash's America is a treat. — Chris Herrington