PBS' 'P.O.V.' Cashes in with timeless profile

  • Johnny Cash

    Johnny Cash

Published: 8/5/2008 12:05 AM

PBS' determinedly idiosyncratic "P.O.V." series goes 40 years into the past today to unearth a documentary about a determinedly idiosyncratic artist, "Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music."

The 90-minute profile makes its national broadcast debut at 10 p.m. on WTTW Channel 11, and in many ways it seems the mainstream audience wasn't ready for it until now.

This clearly takes place in the '60s, when men wore horn-rimmed glasses, women wore Cadillac specs, everyone smoked and fans met their star idols with a worshipful respect. Some of the most poignant moments find Cash interacting with his audience, with some asking humbly for him to autograph their albums and others insisting they play him songs they've written and hope he might like to record.

Yet, in style if not always in subject matter, the documentary seems utterly contemporary today. It was produced and directed by Robert Elfstrom, shot in late 1968 and early 1969 in the cinema verite style - no fine points like introductions or transitions or even subtitles to tell who's on-screen - that still challenges a viewer to stay alert. (Elfstrom would go on to serve as cinematographer on the Mayles brothers' Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter" later that same year.)

This finds Cash at the peak of his early popularity, for instance collecting honors at the (only second annual!) Country Music Awards for his breakthrough "Live at Folsom Prison" album, but even so no wonder the profile never aired on a national broadcast network: It would have confounded most of those in Cash's country audience.

To viewers 40 years ago, it might have seemed sketchy and obtuse. Yet given how much we know about Cash now - especially after the "Walk the Line" biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon - it makes a lot more sense.

The documentary opens with Cash and his band hustling through a brisk onstage version of "Ring of Fire." Yet then it shifts abruptly to Cash in coveralls hunting on his farm - putting his deep voice to a new use trilling bird calls. He wings a crow, then befriends it when he catches it on the ground, promising to heal it even as it bites his hands. The scene has the feel of a deeply symbolic interlude out of a novel about the "Man in Black."

After that evocative opening, the profile becomes much more routine: Cash and his wife, June, on the road in his Dodge mobile home; talking over old times with fellow Sun Records rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins (that's him in the wraparound shades); recording on his own and with a crooning, gum-chewing Bob Dylan during his mellow country "Nashville Skyline" period; making more concert appearances (including a lovely if all-too-short rendition of "Long Black Veil"); and simply interacting with fans, family and friends.

That's where the difference between now and then is most clear - and most discomfiting. One would be hard-pressed to find a celebrity today who shows the same patience dealing with amateurish songs and fawning fandom that Cash does. At one point he even seems to scowl, as if to say, "What am I letting myself in for?" Yet Elfstrom's camera never comments. He clearly earned the trust of the Cashes, so even as they do things with one eye on that camera, their authenticity comes through.

"The Man, His World, His Music" isn't a great documentary by any means. Yet it's a worthwhile addition to the Cash canon, and highly recommended to any of his present-day fans. One can only hope "P.O.V." goes on to revive D.A. Pennebaker's lost Dylan documentary, "Eat the Document," if not the film with the unprintable title photographer Robert Frank made about the Stones on their 1972 tour. When that makes it to PBS, we'll all know the times will have really changed.

Remotely interesting: Fred Weintraub is leaving his post as station manager of Weigel Broadcasting's WCIU Channel 26 to move to London and take a job with British Petroleum. He'd been with Weigel Broadasting since 1996. He'll "commute" between countries and continue to serve as station manager until February.

HBO returns to football training camp with a new edition of "Hard Knocks" focusing on the Dallas Cowboys starting at 9 p.m. Wednesday on the premium-cable channel. ... The Independent Film Channel lives up to its name with the premiere of the documentary "Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone" at 8 p.m. Thursday.

End of the dial: Steve Robinson has been promoted to executive vice president for radio and project development at Window to the World Communications. He previously served as vice president and general manager of classical WFMT 98.7-FM.

Richard Steele has taken over as the primary weekday host of "Eight Forty-Eight" on WBEZ 91.5-FM. He'll play host Monday through Thursday, with Alison Cuddy doing Friday. The new "Chicago Matters" documentary "The End of the Pipe" on water in the city debuts at 9 a.m. today on the show.