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Very much in the manner of an “unplugged” acoustic album that showcases the musicianship of a major artist without distracting flash and filigree, “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” is a tightly focused yet impressively multifaceted documentary that attempts nothing less than to delve past familiar myths and illuminate the soul of its fabled subject.
Director Thom Zimny, who took a similarly stripped-to-essentials approach to another immortal pop-culture icon in his widely acclaimed “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” has fashioned, with the full cooperation of the Cash estate, a richly textured portrait infused with sympathetic but unvarnished honesty, one that likely will endure as necessary source material for any future biographer of the Man in Black.
Zimny - Warren - Zanes - Concert - Johnny
The free-form narrative designed by Zimny and scripter Warren Zanes is anchored in the legendary 1968 concert Johnny Cash gave for inmates at California’s Folsom State Prison, an event that was recorded on a phenomenally popular (and, for Cash, providentially career-reviving) live album, “At Folsom Prison,” and helped solidify his image as a reformed outlaw — and potential backslider — whose hard living and ****-raising could have led to his own extended stretch behind bars.
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Time - Gift - Folsom - Cash - Concern
Time and again, “The Gift” returns to Folsom, sometimes to exemplify Cash’s deep and abiding concern for underdogs, sometimes for its role in the elevation of artist into icon, and sometimes to underscore its importance as one of many turning points in a lifetime that appeared to careen constantly between success and disaster, sin and redemption.
The movie moves back and forth in time to dutifully recall many other of those turning points — but only the ones that have been deemed absolutely necessary by Zimny and Zanes for us to better understand the man behind the music. Don’t expect to see much here about Cash’s part-time TV and movie acting...
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