There is no film footage from Johnny Cash’s milestone live recording at Folsom Prison, so anyone making a documentary called “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” is in for a real challenge.
Writer Michael Streissguth and Director Bestor Cram make as good an attempt as possible. At the same time they happen to reveal why, without primary footage, “as good as possible” isn’t perfect.
Writer Michael Streissguth tells a comprehensive story about the album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. He gives a bit of background on Cash himself, on the appeal of performing for prisoners, and on the decision to record at Folsom. He analyzes the set list and takes a tangent to introduce the songwriter of one of the songs, Glen Sherley, who was incarcerated at Folsom at the time. He follows Cash and Sherley beyond the recording and on toward their deaths.
For a film that’s ostensibly about a single recording session, the scope is epic, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. If you choose this movie because you want to know about Folsom Prison, you might find yourself frustrated at biographical details have already been covered elsewhere. “Get to the point,” I found myself thinking more than once.
Talking-head interviews with friends and colleagues tell the stories behind the album. Director Bestor Cram also uses audio-only interviews with Cash. This is a pitfall for a filmmaker because it means the visual component of those audio interviews is unrelated. Cram uses whatever he can find, but it’s distracting a technique. It’s probably the best a filmmaker can do under the circumstances, but it’s less than ideal.
The concert itself requires the same sort of technique from Cram. No film cameras were allowed at the performance, so only audio and still photos survive. Cram does better over the music than over Cash’s audio interviews. He uses newly created animations from four different animators to make music videos. One of the styles looks hand-animated. One of the neater styles uses computer cutouts of vintage photographs to give them the illusion of depth and motion.
Luckily, the photographs were made professionally (by Jim Marshall) on the day of the concert, with an eye toward posterity. The stark black-and-white scenes are as timeless as Cash’s iconic persona. But if you added up all the screen time taken by those still photos, you might wonder think Cram was leaning on them a little too heavily.
I like Cash’s album, and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison made me understand and appreciate it a little bit more. But there are a lot of weaknesses in this movie that even the best documentarian would have had to live with. Cram and his associates do the best they can with the material available.