Some people ask Judge Kerry Birmingham why he dresses in black, why he never wears bright colors on his back...because he's a damn judge, that's why. Can't you read?
Hello, he's Johnny Cash.
Another biopic, another slew of tie-in DVDs. Piggybacking on the recent big-screen treatment of the life of singer Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, comes this quickie documentary retrospective on the tumultuous life of the "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues" singer. It's cheap, slapdash, and suspiciously lacking any of Cash's music. Luckily for its producers, none of this matters altogether too much: it's Johnny Cash, for God's sake.
Attempting to encapsulate the life of Johnny Cash in just under an hour, Johnny Cash: The Man in Black, begins with Cash's impoverished childhood as an Arkansas sharecropper and moves briskly through the highs and lows of his life and career. All of the usual stops are there for anyone who's read either of Cash's autobiographies, Man in Black and Cash, or even just seen Walk the Line: rise, marriage, addiction, love, failure, and comeback. Listing it like that, like a Behind the Music checklist, robs the life of Cash of any nuance, as does the documentary's rote, chronological run through his life. The narration takes us from his days in Memphis during the infancy of Sun Records through the peaks of his '60s hits, through his recurring addiction to pills, his movie and television career, his '80s decline, and late-life comeback via Rick Rubin's American Recordings. All of these events are presented with little commentary and pause for reflection. A man's life boiled down to a basic recap. This is the cheap documentary equivalent of a grade school book report. Despite the lack of insight, Timeless Media, faced with no budget and obviously no participation from Cash's estate or his label, do what they can to remain visually dynamic and evocative of the man and his music. Local news anchor-like narration tie the segments together as the camera slowly zooms in or pans across still photographs. Time periods and events are represented by stock footage. Music distinctly in the style of Cash takes the place of actual Cash songs. Interviews break up the proceedings, sometimes with folks who have genuine ties to the man himself (such as affable country music producer Jack Clement) but more often with tenuously related authors, historians, record company executives, and showbiz types (including, somewhat randomly, singer Judy Collins).
That the story gets told with minimal intrusion from these limitations is a credit to the filmmakers; that they made this movie at all is not. It's opportunistic, to say nothing of redundant, to put together this Cliffs Notes retrospective of what is an already (justifiably) well-documented life. There's a reason Walk the Line ends the story in the 1960s, and it's not for lack of material. It's an impressive, ultimately empty bit of sleight of hand: telling the story of a man's life without directly addressing that life at all.
Technically, The Man in Black is unremarkable. The stereo sound is serviceable, since crisper narration would be the only difference on a digital track, especially considering the lack of Cash's music. A warning before the disc's main menu warns about the film quality of the source materials used in the documentary, but this is negligible given the time periods discussed and the retrospective nature of the movie. Two featurettes, "Origins of Country" and "The Fifties" offer context for Cash and his point of view. Featuring the same narration and repeating some of the interview footage from the feature, these appear to be cut, slightly reconfigured segments from the movie, probably (and rightly) excluded from the main body of the film for their tangential nature, though their inclusion here does provide some illuminating background, particularly for youngsters like myself who weren't alive during the periods discussed.
The Man in Black is probably ideal for those whose curiosity is piqued by the current blockbuster and want to know more; anyone else will find the proceedings cheap, exploitive, and unilluminating. Cash enthusiasts should look elsewhere for more comprehensive, definitive material on the Man in Black and not be swayed by this dashed-off cash-in.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Timeless Media Group
• "Origins of Country" Featurette
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