The sound of a distant locomotive announces the arrival and departure of “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” a stirring music documentary by virtuoso archivist Thom Zimny.
It serves as a fitting metaphor for the trek taken by the man who debuted on Sun Records with “Hey Porter” and throughout his career would frequently turn to the subject in songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Orange Blossom Special,” to serve as vivid expressions of life’s inevitable passage.
Gracefully curated by Zimny, who also collaborates with Bruce Springsteen on the equally impressive performance film “Western Stars,” the production received the full cooperation of the Cash estate, providing access to a trove of recently discovered materials — most effectively interview tapes by biographer Patrick Carr allowing the Man in Black’s story to be told fundamentally in his own words.
Deftly blended with all that rare footage and fresh (presented in voice-over only) contributions from musicians and family members — Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Brown and daughter Rosanne among them — the visually poetic film offers an appraisal of Cash’s life and craft that is both painfully candid and often revelatory.
“Redemption,” observes an off-camera Springsteen. “For Johnny, that was an enormous part of his whole career.”
With “The Gift,” Cash’s 71-year reckoning with the wages of sin and salvation is put in eloquently humbling, myth-busting perspective.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 25, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills