We had this faith-based film from Johnny Cash on our long list for our most recent “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” (which is actually musically diverse), then our Christian Cinema, aka Christploitation Week, came together, so here we are.
By the time Johnny had the clout to make the movie he always wanted to make — a film that professed his faith — he was already a seasoned film veteran, making his first transition from behind the microphone to the silver screen with a guest-starring role on TV’s Wagon Train (1959) and Shogun Slade (1959). After two more bit roles on The Rebel (1960) and The Deputy (1961), Cash made his feature film debut in Five Minutes to Live, aka Door to Door Maniac (1961). He soon followed with the lead role in the TV movie The Night Rider (1962) and held his own alongside Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight (1971) directed by Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero).
At the time, “Jesus Rock” was big business, which lead to the film adaptations of the Broadway “Rock Operas” Godspell (via Columbia Pictures) and Jesus Christ Superstar (via Universal Pictures), and Neil Diamond taking the music reins on the film adaptation of the international best-selling novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull (via Paramount Pictures) — all of which were issued in 1973. So, when Johnny Cash pitched his version of the Gospel of Christ set to his original tunes, 20th Century Fox got on board the gospel train. The studio, however, only distributed the film: the production was fully financed by Cash and his wife (who plays Mary Magdalene).
To direct his version on the story on the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection on location in Israel, Cash, the producer, chose noted cinematographer and documentarian Robert Elfstrom, who directed Cash’s 1969 documentary Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music.
As inspired Cash’s idea is — of his black-clad self narrating the story via an acoustic guitar performing original tunes composed by himself, his wife June Carter, and Kris Kristofferson — critics outright hated the movie (Michael Medved even gave it an entry in one of his Golden Turkeys books). Sure, the theology is skewed, the narrative is sappy, and the acting is rough in spots. But there’s a lot of heart (that Medved missed, big surprise) in the frames, and none of the negatives my production-critical eye sees today, as I revisit The Gospel Road all these years later, doesn’t detract from the fact that this was a big deal when it debuted in 1973. I have found memories of going to the theater and watching it as a family. I enjoyed it then, and still, today.
What makes it work is that Jesus (played by Robert Elfstrom) isn’t the pious, serious washcloth-wimp we’ve seen in other depictions. Johnny’s Jesus is a jovial messiah who takes to playing with children on the beaches of the Sea of Galilee. Beautiful stuff, indeed.
In addition to the film, the music in the film also served as Johnny’s fourth gospel album and 45th album overall, a double album issued in 1973. The music is, of course, absolutely fantastic.
Am I blinded by my Johnny Cash fandom? Probably. And this movie may not convert you, but it will certainly move you. Oh, yes. It will move you. Johnny has that way about him. And you can stream it for free on Godtube. You can watch the trailer on You Tube.