From its opening images of the Man in Black tenderly cradling a broken-winged crow to its gentle account of Cash’s relationship with his family, Robert Elfstrom’s 1969 film Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music—presented by the PBS documentary series P.O.V.—portrays the singer as the calm center in a whirlwind of wealth and fame.
Elfstrom’s film is a book of quiet revelations. We watch Cash goad his dad into singing at a family get-together; perform the Native American lament “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for a rapt audience at a reservation; and record a duet of “One Too Many Mornings” with a seemingly nervous Bob Dylan (who affects a nondescript country-western delivery in the first verse, and then busts out some Dylanesque locutions in the second).
Most moving of all is the movie’s portrait of Cash’s generosity toward fellow artists, professional and amateur alike. One scene finds Cash winning a Country Music Association Award, then being corralled backstage by a young singer-songwriter who wants Cash to hear his stuff. Most performers of Cash’s stature would have said, “Good luck, kid” and headed for the bar; Cash listens to two whole songs, then goes to find a Columbia Records representative and set up an audition. The young man was Don Freed, the Canadian singer-songwriter, but Cash’s ear for talent isn’t the point of the episode. It’s about karmic payback: Cash’s creative largesse, established in scene after scene, proves it’s possible to be a superstar while still observing the Golden Rule.