Johnny Cash is one of my musical heroes. He led quite a life and left behind a bunch of wonderful songs.
I consider him a man of great integrity who really knew how to sing about the life of the underdog. I like him for some of the same reasons I like Steve Earle and Billy Bragg — they say what they think and do not pull punches.
He also left behind some underwhelming concert films, which I have been watching lately.
A few months ago I had the idea of doing some preparation work for reviewing Walk the Line, when it came out on DVD.
I knew that Netflix had a few concert films by him so I decided to rent those. Bad idea.
I had listened to his two excellent live albums — Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash At San Quentin — but I could not find versions of those concerts.
So instead, I watched and reviewed these:
Johnny Cash – Live from Austin TX
This is one of the best of the bunch, I think, because it is the most recent. You can see how he has aged physically but remains as giving to the audience and grateful for their support as when he was singing the same songs 25 years earlier.
As with the rest of this bunch, there are no extras, no special features, beyond the concert itself. I was disappointed about that.
I give it an 8.
Johnny Cash: Live at Montreaux (1994)
The highlight of this concert is having his wife, June Carter Cash, and son, John Carter Cash, join him in singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the great song originally sung by the Carter Family.
There is also a a quick but moving aside where Cash tells the audience how he stole the drummer Carl Perkins used when he sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” and the drummer is still with him today. The drummer bows.
I give it a 7.
Johnny Cash: A Concert Behind Prison Walls (1977)
I think he was trying to replicate the success of the Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums here. With those films he seems to be trying to work on the level of the prisoners, joking about the warden and the quality of water.
With this film he moved in the other direction. I mean, it’s one thing to
bring his wife, June Carter Cash, along to sing songs as he did with all of these. But Linda fricking Ronstadt? The pacing and flow is off at this concert. While not intended as a comedy, the best part of this concert video is the way they dressed. Those 70s clothes kill me every time.
I give it a 5.
Johnny Cash – Ridin’ the Rails: The Great American Train Story (1974)
This isn’t a concert, but rather a documentary, in which Cash talks about his love of trains. It’s sort of weird and very 70s. Contains reenactments of important railroading moments, which is cool if you dig that scene.
I give it a 6.
Ironically the best of the Cash DVDs I watched was one that just contained the video for “Hurt,” his cover of the Nine Inch Nail’s song. It remains one of the most moving songs ever — not to mention disturbing lyrically — and the video’s portrayal of Cash’s life and career say more in five minutes than the movie probably does in two hours.
So take it from me, a Cash fan, if you want to hear what he sounds like rent the Folsom Prison CD and skip the live videos.