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"P.O.V." Johnny Cash Documentary Is Nearly 40 Years Old, But Is Tonight's Freshest TV Offering Anyway
August 5, 2008  | By David Bianculli
 
pov-cash-childhood-home.jpgTonight's P.O.V.documentary on Johnny Cash is nothing new. In fact, it's something pretty old -- filmed in 1968 and 1969, the time in which he married June Carter, released his famous concert album recorded at Folsom Prison, and was honored as Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association.

But wow, is it fresh.

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, televised at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), captures the music legend, who died in 2003, at the height of his early fame, and at a pivotal time in his life. He'd just shaken his drugs and alcohol addiction, married the woman who would be the enduring love of his life, and started to enjoy crossover success as a mainstream artist.

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Robert Elfstrom, director of this documentary, obviously had Cash's total trust. Cash lets Elfstrom accompany him everywhere, whether the singer is retracing his Arkansas roots or recording in the studio with Bob Dylan. Their duet on "One Too Many Mornings" is one of many musical gems included, in full, in this documentary.

 

pov-cash-dylan-playback.jpgIt's fun to listen to -- but it's even more fun to watch, as Elfstrom cuts from Cash and Dylan recording the Dylan song to a scene of the two of them listening in the studio to the playback. The end of the song is so loosely drawn out and improvised, Cash throws back his head and laughs.

Viewers at home are likely to experience that kind of easy joy, time and time again, while watching this film. For me, the magic starts with the very first scene. Cash is hunting out in the woods, alone with Elfstrom and his camera, and takes aim in the trees. He shoots a crow, but only wounds it -- and picks it up, examines it, and instantly adopts it.

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"Be still," he tells the crow in a soothing but stern voice, and laughs as the bird bites his hand with its beak. "It's not every day you catch a crow," Cash says. And it's not every day you see this natural a side of a celebrity, either. Or this contradictory: Cash the hunter, turning instantly into Cash the nurturer.

But the accurately named Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music (showing a little of each) is full of such moments: Cash taking a trip with June and his sister, going back to the small town and home where they grew up (see picture at the top of this column). Cash in the studio, listening with supportive intensity to a young man nervously playing one of his own compositions for Cash.

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There's Cash the performer - playing two harmonicas on a rousing "Orange Blossom Special," singing a charming duet with June Carter Cash on "Jackson," and performing at such intentionally out-of-the-way sites as prisons and Indian reservations. The film presents one treat after another, alternating quiet private moments with rousing public ones -- and respects the music enough to let most songs play in full.

In the end, this visual biography shows Cash at a time when he was almost beaming with happiness, pride and contentment. It's a great thing to see -- and a great documentary to see, too. And knowing how much music and love Cash still had to give, at that point, makes this vintage snapshot all the sweeter.

 
 
 
 
 
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