Making a documentary about Johnny Cash, the renowned and revered country musician and the original Man in Black, is a daunting endeavor in and of itself. Making one about his most famous (and infamous) concert, which took place inside the walls of Folsom Prison, in Folsom, CA in 1968, is even more daunting. It’s his iconic performance, immortalized with a live album, At Folsom Prison, as depicted particularly effectively in James Mangold’s excellent 2005 biopic Walk The Line. To have that single performance be the focus of the documentary creates a series of unique challenges for director Bestor Cram and writer Michael Streissguth — and overall, they succeed.
Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is more than just a documentary about that celebrated performance. It has to be, due to the limited amount of available material about the concert. There’s no video footage, and with two of the key players, Cash himself and his wife June Carter, both deceased, the opportunities for interviews are scant. As a result, the film inevitably becomes much more than a simple production about the history and origins of the concert — instead, it provides an amazing level of insight into Cash’s life and times, his music and history, as well as a penetrating look at the U.S. prison system and Cash’s campaign to try to reform it.
To do this, an impressive list of participants was tracked down. Interviewees include Cash’s children, Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, honky tonk legend Marty Stewart, and Merle Haggard, one of country music’s elder statesmen. The interviews with the Cash children are particularly poignant, as they reflect on the father that became such a legend. Rosanne Cash is especially compelling, in no small part because part of her screen time is occupied by her going through some of her father’s personal effects, some of which she had never seen until that very moment. Merle Haggard, himself an ex-convict, speaks fondly of Cash, going so far as to say that in some ways, Cash’s example may well have ended up saving his own life. Also engrossing are interviews with Fluke Holland and Marshall Grant, Cash’s bandmates. These vignettes are smartly filmed, using testimonials and free-flowing, stream-of-thought conversations from the subjects, creating a casual sense of intimacy with the subject matter.
All of those participants provide a sense of history and place for Cash, but it’s the parts that focus on the prison, and the concert, that are even more interesting. Using current-day footage of Folsom and its grounds interspersed with interviews with wardens and inmates, it paints a grim, unflinching picture of prison life, and gives Cash’s prison performances (he would also release Life at San Quentin as well as “At Österåker” — recorded at a Swedish prison) a good sense of context. More interestingly was the adulation the inmates clearly felt for Cash, who they felt was one of them, despite never actually serving more than a night in jail — all part of his carefully cultivated outlaw image.
The two pieces that are the most intriguing involve former inmates. The first, Glen Sherley, was the inmate who actually wrote a song (“Greystone Chapel”) that Cash performed at the concert. Sherley was a country music performer himself, whose release Cash successfully lobbied for. Cash would was even waiting for him the day Sherley was released, and would go on to take Sherley under his wing. Sherley’s story, however, is not always a happy one, and further illustrates the film’s ability to provide insight into prison life, both now and then. The second inmate that is in some ways even more intriguing is Millard Dedmon. His interviews are from the present day (he’s still alive and well), and he’s a charismatic, fascinating character; having extensive footage of his interviews allows firsthand accounts of not only the concert, but also the prison itself and the culture within. He has a kindly, grandfatherly persona that makes the eventual reveal of his crimes all the more jarring.
But of course, in the end, the music is the most compelling part. At Folsom Prison remains to this day one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, and not just because of its location — Cash’s deep, resonating voice and his easy rapport with his audience makes it a classic. The lack of video footage, however, becomes the film’s weakness in some ways. The film is interspersed with full-length tracks from the concert, and the visual space is filled with a combination of photographs and bizarre animated footage. The photographs, taken by Jim Marshall, are stark, austere works of beauty that give the harsh landscape a feeling of life and resonance. The animation, however, is frequently grating and ultimately even frustrating. Some of it is simply too weird, and wholly incongruous with the subject matter. Not all of it, mind you — some of it is quite interesting/amusing. But for the most part, one can’t help but feel that those little interludes would have been better served by simply utilizing more of the hundreds of riveting photos that Marshall took.
In the end, however, Johnny Cash Live At Folsom Prison is extremely well-done, and an absolute must-see for Cash fans and historians. By utilizing people, photographs and footage from both the past and present, the film successfully gives the viewer a vivid look into the story behind one of the most captivating and talented musicians and performers in American music history. More so, it gives a previously unseen level of access into what went on behind the scenes — both before and after — the Folsom Prison concert. It’s a shame that the film is occasionally tarnished by a need to provide unnecessary eye candy, but if you just close your eyes and listen to the music, you’ll find yourself taken all the way back to 1968 to a night when history was made.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.