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‘The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash’ is a gorgeous portrait of the Man in Black

Joe Gross
"The Gift" (Contributed by Thom Zimny)

Thom Zimny, who directed “the Gift,” makes beautiful tributes. Check out “Elvis Presley:” The Searcher” and “Springsteen on Broadway” for the full story. “The Gift,” his loving and lovely tribute to Johnny Cash, is the same format as “The Searcher” — white titles, tons of stunning archival footage, plenty of voice-overs from Cash, his kids, and admirers (Rodney Crowell! Jackson Brown!). There’s little that hardcore Cash fans don’t already know, but that’s the not the point of Zimny’s stuff. The point is celebration and tribute; in those terms, it’s a lovely film.

Using the Folsom Prison gig as sort of a frame and objective correlative, Zimny takes us through Cash’s remarkable life, from a hardscrabble Arkansas childhood which included a distant and abusive (to his mother) father and a much-adored older brother who died in a hideous industrial accident to his Air Force time (where he was a radio man who had a talent for listening) to his days in Memphis and beyond. The title refers to something his mother said about his singular voice: “God put His hand on you; don’t ever forget the gift.”

But she might as well have been talking about Cash’s singular place in the 20th century pop pantheon. A songwriter as much as a singer, Cash had, as Graham Nash notes in a voiceover, an amazing talent for writing lyrics “without a word too many or too few.”

Country by default, rock by influence, folk by upbringing and singer-songwriter by design, Cash was never just one thing. When folkies came along, he fit right in. When Dylan came along he had him (and a wealth of artists, playing live, both black and white) on his variety show. When his career hit the skids in the 80s, he kept on keeping on; as a colleague once noted, “A few years before those Rick Rubin comeback albums, Cash was the third best Highwayman.” (Sorry, Kris.) And when Rubin leaned hard into that voice, that goth clothing and Cash’s unique vibe, Cash had one of the greatest second (or third?) acts in pop history.

“The Gift” is like a lavishly illustrated Bible -- you know the story, but this is a gorgeous version. “The Gift” screens again 2:30 p.m. March 14 at Paramount Theatre; 10:45 a.m. March 16 at Alamo Ritz 1.