SXSW Review: The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash


Johnny Cash’s impact on music is undeniable. With his stern voice and lyrics reflecting blue-collar life, Cash found a way to blend folk into country, country into pop, and pop into rock. The man felt as comfortable singing in a prison as he did in a concert hall. He sang of life on the run, tough love, and stealing a Cadillac piece by piece.

There’s not much the world doesn’t know about The Man in Black, but this new documentary from esteemed filmmaker Thom Zimny takes viewers through Cash’s life from a new angle.

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (Official Teaser)

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
Director: Thom Zimny
Rating: NR 
Release Date: March 9, 2019

In The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, Zimny takes the journey from Cash’s birth through his death. The moments in his young life that set him on his eventual path. His brother’s death and father’s verbal abuse shaped Cash early on in life. His father’s dismissal of music as a career only pushed him further, and he had his brother’s memory as added encouragement.

Zimny takes his time telling Cash’s story. Through archived footage and photos, viewers get an honest look at Cash’s life throughout its various stages. Much of the film is voiced over by Cash himself, providing an autobiographical feel to it. There are a plethora of others who provide narration, including Cash’s family. Zimny never takes the focus off of Cash though, as none of the other interviewees are shown on screen. Names like Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and Rick Rubin flash across the screen, sharing their stories without showing face. Throughout the entirety of the film, the camera remains on Johnny Cash.

Cash’s stories about performing at Folsom Prison, the toll of his brother’s death at such a young age, and the roller coaster world of music take up the full ninety-minute film. Live at Folsom Prison threw Cash into the national spotlight and furthered solidified his blue-collar persona. The fame hit Cash hard, and with this Zimny cuts no corners. The section of the film that dives into Cash’s divorce and relationship with his children is especially hard-hitting. His children provide narrative viewpoints regarding their level of interaction with their father, with hints of discontent but understanding.

The abuse of amphetamines is explored during the early heights of Cash’s career. Constantly traveling by car and performing endless shows sent the musician into a spiral of overworked exhaustion. The voice-overs and narration provide in-depth insight into what life on the road was like for Cash, and how he used the pills to stay awake in order to get to as many shows as possible. This obviously took a toll, not only on his health but on his marriage and the aforementioned relationships. 

Zimny certainly has a way when it comes to sharing a person’s story. The antiquated shots of a family on a farm encapsulate the simple American life in the 1930s. An overabundance of concert footage and pictures of the man himself in all stages of his career is seen throughout the film. Not for filler, but for exposition. For those already familiar with Cash and his life, there are little new stories to be told, and a sense of repetitiveness can settle in. But for those who wish to dig deeper into the legend’s life will find a wonderful representation of Johnny Cash and who he was.

Nick Hershey