Antonino D'Ambrosio's 2015 documentary We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited takes a look at two related subjects. The first is the history and cultural importance of Johnny Cash's 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian and the second a 2014 effort to re-record the album with a host of current and classic country artists filling in where Cash, who passed away in 2003, could not. D'Ambrosio also wrote the book 2009 book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, which was clearly the inspiration for the documentary, so he knows the subject quite intimately.
Let's start with the album. Bitter Tears, for those who haven't heard it, was inspired by the Civil Rights movement that was gripping America at the time. Cash, who believed he had some Cherokee heritage, saw a lot of parallels to the plight of the Native Americans at the time and decided to record an album addressing many of the issues that they faced. Cash wrote two of the songs by himself and one with Johnny Horton, but five of the tracks on the record, including The Ballad Of Ira Hayes (which has gone on to become the most famous track off the album) were penned by Peter La Farge, a folk singer living in New York City who had an interest in Native American issues (and who may or may not have been of Narragansett heritage). The album was divisive when it came out. While some were impressed with Cash taking a stand against what he saw as injustice would put so much of himself into an album like this, radio stations were unimpressed by what they saw as affiliated controversy and many refused to play it. Cash himself took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine challenging radio stations and DJs that wouldn't play the song to essentially find the guts to do it. He then had a thousand copies of Hayes shipped off to stations at his own expense and eventually the song became a hit after dropping quickly down the charts from a strong opening. The album shows Cash dabbling in folk rather than pure traditional country or rockabilly, but it's rightly gone on to become well regarded amongst both fans and critics not just because of its controversy, but because of the quality of the album as well.
The 2014 reboot, formally titled Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited features an interesting array of artists paying tribute not just to Cash, and indirectly La Farge, but also th issues that remain as problematic today as they were in 1964. Gilliam Welch, David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Nancy Blake, Kris Kristofferson, Norman Blake, The Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens, Bill Miller and Steve Earle all contribute and lend their own take on the material, and while it doesn't surpass the original in terms of power and integrity, it's a nice tribute to what Cash and company laid down a few decades prier. If nothing else, it proves the timelessness of much of the music that the original album included.
When the documentary is focusing on Cash's work and experiences surrounding the album by way of archival clips aplenty and interviews with daughter Rosanne Cash, it's fascinating stuff. We get an understanding of how and why Cash became as interested and concerned with these issues as he was and why he decided to take a stand. We learn about the controversy as well as the recording sessions, La Farge's involvement, the marketing behind the album and the Billboard ad. Lots of great old photographs are used here as well as plenty of direct quotes from Cash himself. When the documentary is focusing on the recording of the 2014 tribute, it's a bit less interesting. There's some great footage of musicians at work here and some nice music resulted from the sessions (Kris Kristofferson's cover of The Ballad Of Ira Hayes stands out and is played here, though Kristofferson himself does not appear in the feature). A lot of this footage is simply the musicians assembled sitting in front of microphones doing their thing and while it's interesting at first it does tend to get a little dry after a while. The film also spends a lot more time discussing Cash's plight with DJ's and promotion than it does the issues that inspired him to create this project in the first place. A bit more focus on this (and to be fair there is some in the last fifteen minutes or so) would have gone a long way.
Still, there's enough here in the fifty-three-minute-long documentary to appeal to those who an affinity for Cash's music or an interest in the activism that he sometimes engaged in. The piece is well put together and nicely polished and it has an earnest sincerity behind it that goes a long way.The DVD:
We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited arrives on DVD framed at 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks just fine. Shot on digital video, the image obviously shows no print damage. Color reproduction looks quite good and black levels are fine. There are some minor compression artifacts in a few spots but nothing too distracting. Some of the stock footage inserts are stretched from what would logically be 1.33.1 to fill the 1.78.1 frame and some of the archival footage looks less than pristine, but we can forgive this easily enough.Sound:
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix on the disc is free of any problems. Dialogue is easy to follow and understand and the levels are properly balanced throughout. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion in the newly shot footage, though again, some or the archival clips sound a little less than perfect. Again, forgivable under the circumstances. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitles of any kind provided on the disc.Extras:
Aside from menus and chapter selection, the disc also includes fifteen-minutes of deleted interview footage and a trailer for the feature.Final Thoughts:
We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited is at its best when it's focusing on the original album, but to be fair, some of the footage showing the different musicians at work paying tribute to Cash and La Farge is quite interesting. The documentary is a bit on the short side and could have gone more into the politics that inspired the album, but what's here is pretty decent. Recommended for Cash fans, a solid rental for those who don't fall into that category but have an interest in the subject matter.