Johnny Cash up close and personal
The Vancity Theatre keeps knocking it out of the park with its Music Mondays program. On August 1, Bob Elfstrom’s Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music gets a rare Canadian screening. (courtesy of Elfstrom’s Vancouver based business partner and mentor Peter Davis – thanks, Peter!)
Made in 1969 while Cash was riding high with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Elfstrom’s film is generally considered to be the best documentary out there about the Man in Black. It’s easily the most intimate, taking the viewer on Johnny’s tour bus (with Carl Perkins in the band, at the time) and back to his old childhood home, catching him with his parents in Arkansas, or in the studio with a shy Bob Dylan. There’s concert footage from a prison and other less-than-grand venues, and a wonderful scene where Cash sets up a young folkie with a Columbia Records audition.
The film’s slightly roving feel might have something to do with Elfstrom’s total lack of concept going in.
“I had no tether,” Elfstrom tells the Straight with a laugh, from his San Francisco office. “I was basically young, impulsive, and probably in some ways irresponsible. I was having a great time, (soundman) Alan (Dater) was having a great time, and John loved the attention. We were with him month after month.”
Elfstrom – who also shot the spectral, slow motion Madison Square Gardens footage of Mick Jagger for Gimme Shelter - says the project was dropped in his lap by producer Arthur Barron, who was too busy with another film to intervene with the young, two-man crew. As such, the first-time director took risks like putting the camera on stage with the artist. “It became, instead of a voyeur, a participant in the concert,” he says. It also gave Cash the chance to shoot Elfstrom the finger every time he panned to the audience, he recalls. Not that the Man in Black had anything against him. They became lifelong friends, and clearly, considering the access Elfstrom was given, Cash trusted him.
“If you wanna know Johnny Cash,” he says, “the opening scene of the film is really who John is. You see John, he’s walking on his property in Henderson, Tennessee, and he’s got a 12 gauge shotgun on his arm. And he’s wandering around, and he sees a crow. He was a good shot. And he whipped that gun up to his shoulder and blew him right out of the sky. And the crow came tumbling down. And he picks up the crow, and the crow’s very much alive. And then he feels like shit. He’s heartbroken. He sits down with that crow, and on the spot, he writes a song. And I spent the next two days in one of his cars going to veterinarians with that damn crow. That’s who he was.”
Cash never asked Elfstrom to remove the footage. A few years later they’d collaborate on Cash’s feature The Gospel Road.
“John was calling me from, I think, Oslo, Norway,” Elfstrom recalls, “and he said, ”˜I want you to make me a film about Jesus.’ I said, ”˜Jesus who?’ I thought maybe it was a group. He said ”˜Meet me in Norway, tomorrow,’ and that was how that film started.”
The pair decamped to the Holy Land, where Elfstrom commandeered “every hippie that was going through Israel” to play the disciples. Cash and June Carter persuaded the director to play Jesus. It was a reckless adventure, but “it was the best film I could make at the time,” he reckons, noting that Cash considered it his best work. He told Elfstrom, “I made all this money doing the TV series, and it’s dirty money. I wanna use this money for something good.”
Speaking of dirty money, Elfstrom was a little dismayed when he first saw the video for “Hurt”, and discovered that it was loaded with his footage. But he has nothing but admiration for the inspired last act of his friend’s life.
“He went out under full steam just the way he wanted to do,” he says, “and left his mark. His work at the end was as good as anything he did in his whole life, even though he was deteriorating very quickly. But he did it his way, without any commercial thing in mind. A fellow can’t ask much more than that.”Ray Cash (John’s dad): “Tom Ford used to sing that. He learned that to me when I was a little boy.”