May 27, 2009

Cash on Demand: The Man in Black's Legendary Folsom Prison Concert

"I put myself in their shoes," reasoned the legendary "Man in Black" when asked about his unparalleled popularity among inmates during his countless prison visits throughout a lengthy and illustrious career. Most famous among them, of course, was Johnny Cash's triumphant appearance at California's Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, a year that would later unleash violence and unimagined tragedy. As demonstrated in a new documentary, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Cash, who himself had "seen the devil" through drink and drugs, and subsequently served time for both, acquired an unqualified simpatico for the plight of his jailhouse brethren.

The 90-minute DVD accompanies Sony's re-release of a CD box set of a legendary album by the same name, which Rolling Stone ranked number 88 among the magazine's 500 greatest albums of all time. The film was directed and co-produced by Bestor Cram, the founder and creative director of the Boston-based documentary production company Northern Light Productions.

The project emerged after Cram read Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Michael Streissguth. "It is a beautifully written, superbly nuanced understanding of the Cash myth and the real man, facing demons and seeking redemption," Cram observes. Streissguth also served as the film's writer and co-producer. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison retraces one of America's greatest troubadours to his humble beginnings in Kingsland and Dyess, Arkansas during the depression, where, along with his six siblings, Cash worked in his family's cotton fields and sang and wrote gospel music. After he served in the US Air Force in the early 1950s, his big break arrived (as it did for so many blues, country & western and soul musicians) in the form of Sam Phillips of Memphis-based Sun Records. In a humorous recounting of their first meeting, the film reveals that initially Phillips remained unimpressed with Cash's gospel style. His advice: "Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell." Cash returned with a title that would make the C&W Hit Parade: "Cry, Cry, Cry."

The doc's background information is both important and interesting, but it is the original soundtrack, the rare footage from inside Folsom Prison, and the stark images by the iconic rock photographer Jim Marshall that bring this historic film to life. As one would expect, on-camera interviews provide the connective tissue. And the reflections by Cash's daughter Roseanne, his son John Carter and singer Merle Haggard, as well as Folsom inmates Millard Dedmon and Earl Green and prison guard Jim Brown, contribute a "you are there" sensation to a 40-year-old happening.

As with any doc bio, gaining the confidence of the ruling estate is often half the battle. "It is always a process of developing a relationship of trust," Cram says. "Ultimately, it is a business deal where the estate has rights that we needed to negotiate. At the same time, we are independent filmmakers who needed to have content control and ownership of the product." And, although the producers began early on discussing the idea of the package with Sony, according to the director, "It wasn't until we were far down the production process before we knew they were going to do the CD with the DVD coupled together. So the film was conceived as if it would be a stand-alone. We raised the money through a combination of ten pre-sale partners. The first partner in came from Germany and the first US partner came from PBS/APT as part of a pledge special program."         

The film launched in November as a feature HD program on the Rainbow Network system through ZOOM, an HD satellite broadcaster, and premiered in Amsterdam at IDFA. The PBS pledge special, airing in December, is a 56-minute version of the 87-minute feature.

Cram asserts that he and his team made the film to "get beyond the accolades that surround this great concert. Cash is much more interesting than just a personality onstage. Yet, as his daughter Rosanne says, ‘He brought his most passionate self to the stage. It was the place he worked everything out.'" And Cram believes that Folsom was the most important stage he created: "It was a stage where he could really relate to his audience."

 

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a culture journalist and film critic. She reviews films for Boxoffice, and is a contributing editor and columnist at Documentary.

Tags: