Johnny on the spot

Pub date February 18, 2009
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


"Hello, I’m Johnny Cash." Anyone who’s listened to the Man in Black’s 1968 live album At Folsom Prison (Columbia) knows that’s how the record kicks off. What you may not know, before watching Bestor Cram’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, is that the crowd of prisoners was coached not to applaud the vocalist when he appeared onstage, but rather to save their hollerin’ until he greeted them first.

I kind of expected Cram’s doc to simply let the album roll alongside images from the day — though the concert wasn’t filmed, San Francisco–raised rock photographer Jim Marshall took reams of still photos — but it reaches way beyond the music. Cram, whose filmmaking credits include episodes of Frontline and other politically themed works, emphasizes the record’s importance to Cash’s career, drawing on interviews with Merle Haggard, Cash bandmates, and others, and focuses in particular on how it bolstered his regular-man image as a prison-reform advocate, although the performer himself had never spent significant time behind bars.

Of particular interest is Cram’s investigation into the life of Glen Sherley, an aspiring musician who was jailed at Folsom when Cash came to play. The night before the show, unbeknownst to the inmate, Cash crash-coursed Sherley’s song "Greystone Chapel." He then performed it live as a stunned and flattered Sherley watched from the front row. The two men, who looked and sounded alike, formed a bond that led to Cash guiding Sherley’s music career after his release. But as Sherley’s children recollect, it’s one thing to be a famous, if bedeviled, star singing about prison, and another entirely to be an ex-con trying to grapple with the music biz.

Also among this year’s Noise Pop Film Festival offerings: a Wilco concert doc; a look at the career of Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams; a short film about Bible-flinging ’80s rockers Stryper; a tribute to indie record stores; and a "cinebiography" of Os Mutantes’ Arnaldo Baptista.


Feb. 25, 7 p.m., $9–$10 (Noise Pop Film Festival continues through March 1 at Roxie Theater and Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia, SF)

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF