The Man in Black was and is a legend. For his music, for his perception of the world around him and for his writings. He was troubled and dead long before his time as evidenced by his book, Cash. At the end of his rope more than a few times, Johnny Cash lived the life of a wildcard but studied the tribulations and lush strokes of passion founded in country music and family living. Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon does not try to gloss over the controversies or claims Cash made, but picks up where Cash believed his life would end, in a cave and in the dark. What a place to find yourself. Cash found himself there and not for the first time either, but this shift was permanent.
Who, what and how Cash was reformed into a grand artist is a far longer story than first expected. Delve into the darkness, the admirably and surprisingly strong Chicken in Black, and the turn of form which saw Cash shoot back into the mainstream as an out-of-time artist. Legends never truly fade from the public eye, and as the footage throughout this nicely pieced-together Ben Smallbone documentary shows, the man was troubled and needed to set himself free through music. Most artists manage to do so and relapse into themselves. Cash, with every fibre of his being, needed this break and he talks of such a meltdown in the opening narration plucked from one of many interviews. He expected the end to come but no such luck was present.
Instead, the likes of Rick Rubin and June Carter Cash plucked him out of a devastating period. That much is shown with plentiful helpings of archival and modern-day interviews with those who know the story, or the man, best of all. A little hammy in bits and places, feeling more like a Pawn Stars documentary with all the aplomb of a faceless country voice speaking of country ties, the made-for-television typography and presentation is a shaky affair. Held together with heartbreak and glue, touching interviews with Joanne Cash and historian Mark Stielper bring about the history of the man himself. For those who read Cash, there is nothing new to contemplate in these early stages. But heartbreak is the core of Cash and it was the firm hand behind his music, long-lasting masterpieces or throwaway B-Sides, it was there.
Despite those mentions here of tracks, The Redemption of an American Icon falls very short of discussing the music, or at the very least the faith and its impact on Cash. It presents plenty of religious back and forth, the Bible Channel direction and the slow pan toward the front of the Lord’s House becomes an advertisement for Christ rather than an impactful, studious look at its impact on a country musician. Instead, the clean Cash and the dedication of his soul becomes a puff piece for an alleged turn to promoting the gospel and the good book. Whether this happened or not is overplayed, Cash’s autobiography is worn thin by this Smallbone piece, which is stretched thin the further it spirals.