November 26, 2018  (Web Review)

We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited

(2015) 53 min. DVD: $19.95. Kino Lorber (avail. from most distributors). Closed captioned.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Antonino D’Ambrosio, author of A Heartbeat and a Guitar (2009), documents the making of a tribute album to Johnny Cash. While there have been others—including 1988’s ‘Til Things Are Brighter—2014’s Look Again to the Wind revolves around Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a contentious 1964 release on a subject that was close to Cash’s heart but found little interest from country radio. Producer Joe Henry describes the project as a way to keep the conversation that Cash started going. Emmylou Harris, who sings “Apache Tears,” discovered the album when she was 16, and assumed that Cash was a folksinger. Bill Miller, a Native American singer, says that the album made him “feel that somebody cared.” Rosanne Cash, an eloquent spokesperson on behalf of her father’s work, says she appreciates his concept records the most. She also notes that he was struggling with drug addiction at the time, but that his faith, combined with his concern for social issues, kept him going. The centerpiece of the documentary is the Peter La Farge-penned “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a portrait of the Native American Marine depicted in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, which Kris Kristofferson sings on the tribute album. D’Ambrosio incorporates footage of La Farge, who passed away in 1965, from the 1961 documentary Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass. Other musicians who appear here include Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, and Rhiannon Giddens. Singer Nancy Blake says that Cash “was bitterly disappointed by the lack of response” to Bitter Tears, although he probably would have been pleased to know that people were still talking about it 50 years later. Extras include bonus interviews. Recommended. Aud: P. (K. Fennessy)